Then & Now: Save-On-Foods surpasses the century mark

Working for the grocery chain for 40 years, Malcolm Robson says changes to the ordering system have been astounding.

The very early days of what would become the Overwaitea grocery stores

A full century after first opening, the Overwaitea Food Group has evolved its practices for the technological era while maintaining the same service orientation it has always had.

Malcolm Robson is now the store manager for Orchard Plaza Save-On-Foods in Kelowna.

Robson first started working for the grocery chain at the Overwaitea store in Nakusp 40 years ago.

“Just before I started, the orders used to be done on a piece of paper,” he says.

“You had an order book. Campbell’s Soup was order 001. If you wanted a case of soup, you’d mark it down and then go through the store and spend time on the phone with the warehouse.”

He says the changes to the Save-On-Foods ordering system over the years has been astounding, with computer-assisted ordering at the register automating the process.

And, prior to the introduction of computer systems, Save-On-Foods staff were required to know bulk prices off by heart.

“We knew that celery was 99 cents for three pounds, and you had to do the math in your head. Now, everything is based on UPC (universal product codes).

“When I started in 1975, we used to deliver groceries. The ladies in town would come in and say, ‘Please deliver this after 4.’ We had a delivery van we’d drive around in.”

Robson notes that today, the Save-On-Foods grocery delivery van has been replaced by an e-commerce system.

Lower Mainland residents can shop for groceries online and pick up their fare at the store —or have their items delivered for a small fee.

He also says that things today are more predictable than they were in the past, naming deliveries as an example.

“In Nakusp, on a freight day we’d start work at 3 a.m. If the truck wasn’t there by 3:30, that meant he missed the 2 o’clock ferry out of Revelstoke and wouldn’t arrive until 7 a.m. Today, we take it for granted—‘the truck will be here at 10.’ Everything is more predictable.”

And although process improvements have made things easier over the years, other factors have created new challenges.

“There’s a lot more competition in town,” he says, “and they’ve really picked up their game.

“I think the biggest thing we’ve done to stay competitive is stay the course with our great customer service.

“We strive to give great products and great service at great prices.

“You can’t be chasing everyone­—you have to decide who you are and stick with it.”

It’s a strategy that appears to be working.

This past March, the business celebrated its 100th anniversary, with a roster now of 145 stores in B.C. and Alberta.

And with such deep roots, Save-On has developed the resources and commitment to support local charitable organizations.

Currently, the grocery store chain is the single biggest corporate supporter of the B.C. Children’s Hospital, and has been for the last two years.

Locally, Save-On also sponsors the Kelowna Food Bank through Canstruction, the Fat Cat Children’s Festival, and a variety of other initiatives through Overwaitea sister banners Urban Fare and Cooper’s Foods.

But for Robson, it’s the staff that make the work worthwhile.

“Whenever anybody leaves this company, we miss them a lot. In 2014, we bought 15 stores from Sobey’s.

“Their employees couldn’t believe how hard we work and how much we enjoy working with each other—how much like a family it is.”


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