Transforming the Shopper Experience SuperValu and Centra MD Ian Allen on three years at the helm
Ian Allen has been managing director of SuperValu and Centra for three years now. IF&CR asked him what’s been achieved under his leadership? What is he most proud of – and gets the low down on his plans for transforming the shopper experience, and why it’s been an eventful three years.
“It’s been a very eventful three years. Our independent retailer model is unique, our retailers are at the heart of communities” Ian said.
“I think what I am most proud of is the way our retailers and colleagues went above and beyond to serve our customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our values as a family business at the heart of the community shone brightly. It was a time of great uncertainty our retailers and colleagues immediately showed huge passion and commitment to serve their communities, ensuring that the most vulnerable were taken care of. I have so many amazing examples and stories of the lengths our stores and colleagues went to in order to support our customers across every community in Ireland.
“Every supply chain around the world was hugely disrupted during the pandemic, our robust supply chain made it possible for our stores to be replenished every day. Our fleet of 500 trucks and 10 distribution Centres were on full steam. With each challenge over the last number of decades, pandemic, Brexit, storms etc we have seen our supply chain develop into an agile, robust and high performing operation” he explained.
“The level of service during the pandemic was a great example of the community ethos that underpins SuperValu and Centra – our independent retail partners, who own and operate SuperValu and Centra stores, are deeply embedded in their communities.
“Without doubt I am immensely proud of our retailers and colleagues from the shop floor to the warehouse and how they worked with total focus on the community they served throughout the pandemic.
“During lockdown, for a lot of people living alone or more vulnerable, the only person they would see in any one day or week was the local SuperValu or Centra colleague who was delivering their food. And so it wasn’t just about delivering the food, in many cases those colleagues – stayed chatting for hours and therefore brought a sense of connection and social interaction that was so vital for all of those people who were isolated and lonely during the very difficult lockdown period.
“We are transforming the shopper experience across both SuperValu and Centra. I am very happy with the progress we are making here. We are working with our retailers in revamping our network of stores. The new store design aims to give the best ‘food experience’ to our shoppers underpinned by great value and great quality.
“By the end of 2023 we will see another 25 SuperValu stores revamped showcasing wonderful butchers and fishmongers, artisan and vegan fresh food, fruit and veg including loose products, and providing access to a wide range of local and Irish products.
Centra Revamp Programme
“Our Centra revamp programme is based on an award-winning store design proving to be hugely successful with our customers. By the end of 2023, 38 more stores will be revamped. Centra is all about offering shoppers convenience, and we are the leaders in this space, whether that’s through convenient meal solutions, grab-and-go favourites like our snacks or deli products, our very popular and growing Frank and Honest coffee range, or introducing new technology to make the in-store experience even more convenient. More to announce here in the future.
Frank & Honest
“I’m also proud of the success of Frank & Honest which had a record year last year and is the leading on-the-go coffee brand in Ireland, delivering quality and consistency across over 700 SuperValu and Centra stores nationwide. 23 million cups were sold in 2022, and we are currently rolling out an enhanced customer experience with our new machines which offer an extended range of drinks, all designed to deliver the very best bean-to-cup coffee.
“And I’m proud of the changes we are making to bring a more sustainable offering to our customers. Operating sustainably is at the heart of what we do, and it is increasingly important to our SuperValu and Centra customers. In the last 12 months, together with our SuperValu and Centra retailers, we delivered a 9% reduction in carbon emissions across all our stores with a target of 12% reduction in carbon emissions by 2024.
As MD, what plans does Ian have for the next 3-5 years (short-term) for both SuperValu and Centra?
“At SuperValu we want to be recognised as the most sustainable food retailer in Ireland. We have a very ambitious target on reaching Net Zero, packaging and food waste reduction, and supporting agri-food producers to reduce their impact on the environment. We can only achieve these targets by working with our retailer partners, suppliers and colleagues and key stakeholders. We are making changes now right throughout the business that will be increasingly visible over the next few years in our stores and communities.
“At SuperValu we will continue to develop our leading-edge shopping experience and revamp our stores, to better serve our existing shoppers, connect more with younger shoppers and give them the modern food and shopping experience they expect. That means increasing the range of healthier and more sustainable products that we offer, while also continuing to provide the high-level of quality for which SuperValu is renowned across fresh food, bakery, fruit and veg and beyond.
“At Centra, one of our big areas of focus is that we recognise consumers are looking for healthier options on the go for breakfast, lunch, snacking and on-the-go beverages. We will bring new, high-quality healthier options across all of these areas.
“Technology will be a big part of everything we do, and we will continue to invest in online and in-store technology to give consumers as seamless a shopping experience as we can. The idea is to make sure that consumers have a range of channels through which they can purchase from us, with each of those channels being as user-friendly as possible.
What’s the difference between SuperValu and Centra? How does Ian view the differentials of each brand?
“SuperValu and Centra are all about community. Our independent retailers are at the heart of communities across Ireland, which means they are committed to offering the best-quality , value, service, and food experience.
“SuperValu is passionate about supporting local and Irish suppliers and investing in communities through initiatives like SuperValu TidyTowns. We’re also known for the high-quality we deliver, with a firm focus on fresh produce and great service, butcher counters, fishmongers and more. Alongside that, it’s really important to us that we deliver the best possible value for customers, which is particularly important at the moment with household budgets stretched.
Leader in Convenience
“Centra is Ireland’s leader in convenience, with a range of store formats providing quick and convenient shopping options right across the country from classic deli-favourites to high-quality meals. The offer is resonating very strongly with customers. We have almost 500 stores across Ireland, serving customers who want to ‘grab and go’. Delivery and collection is an increasing focus for us as well, as part of our mission to make things as convenient as possible for shoppers.
Both SuperValu and Centra are brands at the heart of the nation – at the core of everyday life and the lifeblood of local communities – how important is ethos to your everyday operations?
“We are community retailers. Our unique model is built around making the communities we operate in better places to work, live and play and being close to our customer. Our SuperValu retailers are deeply embedded in communities and get to know our customers and help us better anticipate customer needs.
“A big part of our success over the years is down to the agility and innovation we have shown in meeting changes in customer preferences. Without our retailers on the ground, we would not be able to meet such customer preferences in the timeframe we do.
“The closeness of our retail partners to their communities has also helped inform the development and expansion of our own-brand range in recent times, as we aim to help shoppers make savings.
Supporting local charities and clubs
SuperValu and Centra are both great supporters of local charities and sports clubs – how important is that?
“It’s vital because it’s fundamental to our community ethos. We want to contribute to the communities we operate in, to help make them thrive. And our retail partners are doing that, making significant financial contributions through employment, sponsorships and supports to a number of charities.
“For example, Centra has supported the Irish Cancer Society’s Breast Cancer awareness month for 13 years, with last year’s appeal raising €57,492. Our Daffodil Day appeal raised €43,000.
“SuperValu has been a proud sponsor of the GAA All-Ireland Football Championship for over 14 years. Our local retailers also support the GAA at a grassroots level, funding and sponsoring local GAA clubs all over the country. Over 1,000 local GAA clubs are supported every year.
“Centra has been a sponsor of the GAA All-Ireland Hurling Championship since 2010 and that partnership continues to go from strength to strength, with local Centra retailers similarly providing support at grassroots level all over the country.
“Local Centra stores play a very active role in their communities and make a significant financial contribution through employment but also the various sponsorships and support for numerous charities. A recent economic impact report we carried out highlights the financial contribution of Centra stores is valued at an estimated €646.7 million. Direct employment by Centra creates approximately €38 million in employment taxes and generates a total net wage of €160.4 million, which is injected into local economies. In 2021, Centra stores spent €2.1 million on local sponsorships and payments to a wide array of local and national charities.
SuperValu and Centra are also known to be active supporters of locally produced food – in particular of young, vibrant, indigenous companies (such as Happy Pear for example) – can you tell me more about what that means to both brands and to the local economy?
“Well SuperValu supports over 1,800 Irish suppliers. All of our fresh meat and dairy is 100% Irish and Bord Bia approved. Our commitment to local and Irish sourcing runs right the way through our business.
“We are huge supporters of local producers. Our customers want to support local, and we constantly review our product range, looking for opportunities to put new offerings from Irish producers on shelves. For many of our local producers and suppliers SuperValu and/or Centra provided the first opportunity on shelf for their products and supported their growth to become regional/national brands. w in their local store.
Food Academy Programme
“A good example of what we are doing to support younger businesses is our Food Academy programme, which this year is celebrating its 10th year. €230m of Food Academy product has been sold in SuperValu stores over the last decade, and more than 300 Food Academy producers are regularly stocked in SuperValu stores across the country, all year round.
“Food Academy provides mentorship and a range of dedicated workshops to local Irish producers, across areas like food safety, market research, branding, marketing, finance, sustainability, and business development.
“And I think what this does, alongside the other initiatives we have in this area like our Taste of Local campaigns, is really demonstrate to consumers that supporting local and Irish suppliers is embedded in SuperValu and Centra. Through us, shoppers have an opportunity so support these businesses themselves.”
Cost of Living Crisis
The ‘cost of living’ crisis has hit all households – the grip on the weekly shop may be tighter than it was before, and inflation has had an impact on all aspects of life – what are SuperValu and Centra doing to assist Irish households to navigate the cost of their shopping trolley/baskets? Has it changed buying patterns?
“Well obviously, we’re very well aware of the impact inflation has had on everybody. We’re still seeing elevated input costs in a lot of areas. We are working hard with our suppliers to pass on savings to consumers wherever and whenever we can, and we’ve just done that at SuperValu for example through a price cut campaign with reductions on over 1,000 every day items .
“Another way we have sought to help people save money is through a large investment in our own-brand range. Across SuperValu and Centra we have over 6,000 own brand products. The range has resonated really strongly, and we’ve seen a big increase in demand for it – that shift to own brand is probably the biggest change we’ve seen in shopping patterns.
“We are seeing an increase in demand for good quality convenient ready to cook and ready to heat and eat meals across SuperValu and Centra Own Brand ranges, The Happy Pear and Donnybrook Fair meals. Savvy shoppers want convenience and no waste.
Combating Climate Change
Combating climate change and environmental issues are becoming increasingly crucial to this generation and the next – some say we’re passed the point of no return. What has SuperValu and Centra done to address their own climate change/environmental responsibilities – and what will you do in the future?
“As Sustainable Development Goal Champions since 2019, SuperValu and Centra recognise the important role they play in the climate crisis, in their own business, but also with suppliers and customers. Not only do we want to help shoppers make more sustainable choices but sustainability is a priority throughout our business and we are committed to reducing our carbon emissions to be Net Zero carbon by 2040. our own and retailer operations by 2040.
“Sustainability is important as it serves as a guiding principle for responsible decision-making, ensuring a balance between human needs, environmental preservation, and the well-being of future generations. By acting sustainably, we can create a better world for ourselves and leave a positive legacy for those who come after us.
“With the growing impacts of climate change, resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, and pollution, there is an urgent need to adopt sustainable practices to protect the environment and preserve natural resources for future generations.
Reviewing and redefining
“We can always do more as a business and we are constantly reviewing and redefining processes to ensure best practice in our day-to-day business. It’s about progression, not perfection. This is a journey for us and our customers, but we hope they will join us in making Ireland a better place.
“Our strategy is focused on reducing our emissions to reach net zero carbon by is it 2050 and we are on track to achieve that.”
“Our retailers have invested and also benefited from a dedicated €25m sustainability fund, that Musgrave put in place to help achieve this target.
“The fund covers initiatives like upgrading freezers and refrigeration units, LED lighting retrofits, solar panels, and electronic shelf edge labels. Between June of last year and June of this year, SuperValu and Centra retailers have achieved a carbon reduction of 9%.
“While we know we have a responsibility to make sure our practices and processes are sustainable we know our customers want to make changes too but sometimes it can seem overwhelming. That’s why we have launched the new SuperValu Take Local Action, Make Global Impact campaign – to help customers make small changes in their daily lives that will have a global impact. It’s a journey we are on and we want to help our customers join us. The campaign gives idea, tips, tools on food waste, recycling, product choice etc. It really is how we live and work together in local communities is central to a more sustainable future.
As a major employer, with responsibility for hundreds of stores across Ireland – do you carry the weight of that responsibility as MD – how do you manage all those spinning plates?
“The key to it really is having a good team around you, and I’m in the very fortunate position to have exactly that. The team here is very highly-skilled, dedicated and passionate about the business. And that goes for everybody – whether it’s the close colleagues who help me “spin the plates”, our retailers who work so hard to deliver for our customers, or the in-store staff who served our communities so admirably during the pandemic.”
Ian Allen has over 35 years working in the food industry. “Before working for Musgrave, I had a number of roles in the food industry from management roles across the supply base to store management.
“Since joining Musgrave in 1997, my career has spanned – supply chain, our buying/trading department leading a number of portfolios across Fresh and Chilled categories as well as strategy development roles.”
In 2011 Ian was appointed Sales Director for Centra – leading the delivery of the brand store format proposition resulting in Centra being the No.1 convenience brand in the country with almost €2bn turnover now. He also led the development of the Frank & Honest coffee brand in 2016 to now be the no.1 coffee brand in the country.
In 2018 Ian was appointed SuperValu Sales Director – leading the Brand Development of before and during the pandemic, the results of which are now being brought to life in stores and communities around the country .
With such a broad resume, what aspirations does Mr Allen have for SuperValu and Centra in the longer term?
“I think we will experience a significant pace of change over the next 15 years. The consumer landscape will be impacted by factors such as technological advancements, changing patterns of personal consumption and the changing profile of the shopper.
“We are already witnessing huge change in Ireland. We have a rapidly changing demographic and an increasingly diverse country. The changing nature of Ireland, population, diversity, how people life and shop, work and commute etc will bring many opportunities for our brands, retailers and our business and that is what I look forward to.
“ My long-term ambition is to embrace the change and enable our retailer to flourish and grow through this change. I am passionate about the role our retailers play in the development of the grocery retail offering. Together with our retailers we will drive standards and the food experience to a new level.
“We want to build a world-class convenience brand with clear leadership across the island of Ireland, and we’re going to do that by continuing to make it easier for people to shop with us, building out even more flexibility with collection and delivery options to meet our customers’ preferences.”