Metro Inc. expanding use of in-store technology amid labour crunch

Metro Inc. plans to roughly double the number stores with self checkouts during its 2020 financial year as the industry contends with a tight labour market.

“It’s a challenge,” said CEO Eric La Fleche, during a conference call with analysts after the company released its fourth-quarter results.

“I suspect it’s a challenge for everybody in retail and it’s a challenge for us to staff stores.”

In October, the unemployment rate in Quebec was five per cent and 5.3 per cent in Ontario, according to Statistics Canada. Both fell below the national rate of 5.5 per cent.

Metro operates most of its food and pharmacy stores in Canada’s two largest provinces along with some Jean Coutu locations in New Brunswick.

La Fleche said the company is managing through the problem so far but he noted at a certain point, if staff don’t show up or stores can’t find people to fill vacancies, store conditions start to reflect that reality.

“That’s why technology, like self checkout or shelf labels, helps in making the job simpler for our store people,” he said.

More than 100 Metro stores already have self checkouts installed and the company plans to add the technology to another 100 locations this fiscal year, he said.

Currently, 37 stores have electronic shelf labels that don’t require price tags to be updated manually, he said, and Metro is targeting to boost that number to close to 100 by the end of its 2020 financial year.

While the company is installing the self checkouts in an effort to improve customer experience, La Fleche said the technology and electronic shelf labels help manage labour costs.

“If we manage our hours well … we’re seeing some labour savings as expected to provide the return on investments.”

Labour savings vary by store, he added.

The comments came as the retailer ended its fiscal year with a 15.4 per cent net earnings boost in the fourth quarter.

The Montreal-based company earned $167.4 million or 66 cents per diluted share for the period ended Sept. 28, up from 56 cents per share or $145 million a year earlier.

Excluding one-time items, Metro earned $174 million or 68 cents per share in adjusted profits, compared with $161 million or 63 cents per share a year ago.

Revenues increased 3.3 per cent to $3.86 billion, from $3.74 billion as food same-store sales climbed 4.1 per cent and pharmacy same-store sale were up 3.4 per cent.

Metro was expected to report 69 cents per share in adjusted profits on $3.85 billion of revenues, according to financial markets data firm Refinitiv.

For the full year, net earnings fell by more than half to $714.4 million from $1.72 billion following the sale of operations. Adjusted profits grew 26.3 per cent to $731.6 million or $2.84 per share. That compared with $579.2 million or $2.41 per share in the 2018 fiscal year.

Revenues were $16.77 billion, up 16.6 per cent from $14.38 billion or up 3.2 per cent when excluding the Jean Coutu Group.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Nov. 20, 2019.

Companies in this story: (TSX:MRU)

Aleksandra Sagan, The Canadian Press