Interview with
Alain Dumas

Company
IGA
Year
2016

A taste for innovation .

He loves good food, numbers, innovation, and technology. In fact, this winning recipe allowed him to create the first online transactional grocery website in America. For twenty years, Alain Dumas has been thinking and rethinking the relationship between food and digital technologies in Quebec. Here is a portrait of a bright and visionary leader, Sobeys Quebec’s Senior Director of Public Affairs and Head of Digital Strategy, Alain Dumas.

From finance to food

Alain Dumas is a pure Sobeys product. In 1987, he set foot in the company for the first time. As a Computerized Financial Analysis graduate, he already had a “thing” for everything IT, and the food industry offered him an exciting playing field.

“Food is an extremely technological and creative field that fluctuates more than we realize,” Alain notes. He goes on to say that, “There’s the whole digital part, strictly speaking, but also the cashier aspect, the consumer databases, the fidelity programs, and so on.”

At Sobeys, Alain has held a variety of roles including Financial Operations Analyst, Information Systems Advisor, Bonichoix Banner Manager, Retail Operations Manager and, most recently, Public Affairs Manager. However, over the years, he has always been in charge of everything relating to digital technology; a smart move that’s proven to be undeniably beneficial. In fact, Alain created IGA.net in 1996, when Netscape was the ultimate navigator, and Amazon was still taking its first steps towards online sales. He was responsible for setting up North America’s very first transactional grocery website.

Going in offense
to innovate

Still, 20 years later, Alain Dumas demonstrated the same enthusiasm and progressive spirit. However, this time he was faced with a new context.

Since 1996, the food industry has undergone several transformative waves. To this day, Alain remembers the “square foot war” that marked the beginning of the 2000s like it was yesterday. “At that time, it was necessary to occupy the territory. Major real estate investments were made, and many grocery expansions were carried out,” he explained. Today, this trend has finally come to a halt and even reversed to some extent. With store sizes decreasing, it’s clear to see that the industry is turning to reduced formats. Although competition no longer relates to surface area and square footage, the fight is nevertheless relentlessly ferocious.

In recent years, a new phenomenon has hit grocers with full force. “Everyone has begun selling food,” says Alain. In the past, three or four big players controlled 70% of the market. Now, it’s becoming more and more fragmented.

 We can’t passively lose market share every year and fool ourselves into believing that consolidating, being more efficient, or managing our costs will be the solution.

That’s managing a decrease, and we must work towards achieving the opposite. 

« In 20 years, our business model may be completely different from what it is today. But at least we’ll have survived! »

In this new competitive arena, the head of Digital Strategy at Sobeys Quebec sees great opportunities for supermarket chains. “We have to quit wasting our energy trying to protect our niche markets, and redirect our efforts to find ways to innovate via digital technologies. If Amazon can claim a space in the specialized food industry, the reverse is also entirely possible,” argues Alain.

Alain points to Tesco, the European food leader, who started selling appliances and a variety of other non-food items online. In 2011 and 2012, the British multinational even ventured into the sale of used vehicles, via its site tescocars.com. “Tesco realized their brand loyalty was so strong and steeped in trust that they were able to expand their service offering by partnering with the right players. Tesco ultimately played the reverse of Amazon’s game! In my opinion, this is the way of the future,” says Alain.

For the manager, being more aggressive and diversifying product ranges beyond the usual grocery store categories is the winning approach. “In 20 years, our business model may be completely different from what it is today. But at least we’ll have survived! We can’t passively lose market share every year and fool ourselves into believing that consolidating, being more efficient, or managing our costs will be the solution. That’s managing a decrease, and we must work towards achieving the opposite,” states Alain.

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CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBE-TROTTING FOODIE
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Where to find Alain when he’s out of office or not working

Travelling is one of my biggest passions. I really enjoyed Cambodia, Berlin, and Argentina. Plus, I particularly like to discover new culinary cultures abroad. It’s an occupational bias, I guess.

Where to go for an impressive meal

 In St. Petersburg, Russia, at a gala in the catholic church of St. Catherine, we were treated to a meal cooked by a French caterer who cooked for the Czars and who also prepares the President’s New Year Dinner. It was an amazing meal. Based on what I can remember, it was my best meal yet. And what an atmosphere!