2019 Retail Innovator of the Year: SAQ’s bigger omnichannel play

How the Quebec liquor retailer deepened engagement for its Inspire loyalty program.

SAQ2This story originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of strategy.

When Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) first launched Inspire in 2015, some skeptical media outlets debated the merits (and motivations) of a monopoly-owned loyalty program. However, when speaking with the Montreal Gazette at the time, SAQ’s then-chief exec Alain Brunet noted that Inspire wasn’t created only in the name of loyalty – but also efficiency. The Crown corp’s thinking was to reinvest its mass marketing dollars (taken from print media, such as flyers and newsprint) into a far more targeted platform, so that it can “know our customers better and adapt to their needs.”

And that it does: a whopping 2.3 million Quebecers, in a market of just 4.5 million, have since signed onto the program, and are now responsible for 70% of dollars spent at SAQ.

Quebec is considered a société distincte. The same can be said about SAQ when it comes to using big data to inform its shopper experience. After spending the last four years collecting data on its shoppers, Ariane de Warren, brand and marketing manager, customer experience, says the next step was to align the digital program with in-store. It was precisely that omnichannel approach that led strategy to name SAQ the 2019 Retail Innovator of the Year.

ariane-de-warren_SAQLast June, SAQ installed terminals in aisles, which customers use to look up their “taste profile” and previous purchases. They can also check product inventory via the terminals in real-time. The in-store screens, de Warren says, offer the advantages of the app, but can also be used by Inspire advisors to look up a buyer’s purchase history and taste profiles to assist in store. De Warren stresses that it “complements in-store advice, but it does not replace it” and says the retailer continues to speak to the importance of product advisors through its messaging.

On the digital side, SAQ also redesigned its app to offer more personalized content and access to tastings, trips and offers, all linked through the Inspire program. It added “Taste Tags,” which help members navigate the sometimes complicated (and intimidating) world of wine. The colour-coded gustatory preferences help a user find a wine they prefer, based on online questionnaires. SAQ will occasionally push related Inspire points offers, with banner ads placed above the “Taste Tag” results. Because of this, de Warren says the Quebec liquor retail system can better determine what a consumer wants before they even enter a physical store.

The retailer also created a “New Arrivals for Me” feature, with customized offers in its weekly newsletter, which Inspire members can sign up for. It includes week-long online presales, followed by in-store offers. The idea is to cater to fans of SAQ’s Signature and Cellier products, de Warren says, so they no longer have to travel to a specific store to purchase limited products; rather, they can choose from an offer and have it delivered to their local SAQ.

According to PWC Canada, retailers benefit from engaging with consumers through things beyond points – advice SAQ has followed as it hosts more events in partnership with its vendors, says De Warren.

Partnering with the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec, SAQ recently offered an eight-course meal at the Port of Montréal’s Grand Quay for 400 Inspire members. The retailer also worked with Hendrick’s Orbium gin to offer a hot-air balloon ride in Montreal, complete with samples and gifts.

De Warren says while the retailer used to focus on flyer advertising, now it concentrates on “omnichannel, digitalization and personalization, the relevant tools to reach younger consumers.”

With Inspire, the taxpayer-owned retailer proves innovation can prevail in a non-competitive market. By incorporating Inspire across its retail enterprise, SAQ has successfully upped its omnichannel game.