Canadian Tire names chief brand and customer officer

Susan O'Brien's promotion follows a mixed quarter, with the sales impact of COVID-19 coming with a 400% growth in ecommerce.

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Canadian Tire Corp. has promoted Susan O’Brien into a new role as it looks to sustain ecommerce growth and enhance the customer experience following a difficult quarter due to COVID-19 related store closures.

O’Brien, formerly SVP of marketing and corporate affairs, has been named chief brand and customer officer, giving her greater oversight of the customer experience across all CTC banners and brands, which include Sport Chek, Sport Experts and Mark’s. She will also lead the group’s CSR strategy.

“We are hyper aware of the importance of customer acquisition for the long-term, and know that we have work to do to improve our customer experience,” said CEO Greg Hicks during a second-quarter conference call with analysts. “I don’t need to tell you that the pandemic has dramatically changed consumer shopping habits and expectations, quickly and permanently, amplifying the vital importance of omnichannel.”

The decision to promote O’Brien comes as CTC recovers from a difficult quarter, during which the majority of its store network was closed. The company reported a net loss of $20 million for the quarter ended June 27, compared with a $177 million surplus last year.

However, Hicks said that there was “still a lot to like about this quarter,” as the pandemic accelerated its ecommerce development by two to three years. “This quarter’s results will pay dividends for us when it comes to delivering on our objective of remaining relevant to our customers.”

Overall retail sales for the quarter grew 1.7% (or 9.3% when excluding petroleum sales), reaching $4.4 billion. However, sales varied widely by banner. Retail sales growth of 20.3% at Canadian Tire flagship stores was negatively offset by declines of 24.9% at SportCheck, 36.4% at Mark’s and 46.4% at Canadian Tire Gas+ locations. These declines, the company said, were largely due to store closures taking effect in late March and early April.

But public health measures were a boon to online sales.

Ecommerce sales grew 400% over the quarter, reaching around $600 million, led by 500% growth at Canadian Tire stores. And digital traffic increased by 75% across all banners and over 100% at Canadian Tire. “Ecommerce demand exploded in April and May,” Hicks said, “and in June, we saw new heightened levels relative to pre-COVID-19 activity.”

During the quarter, the number of unique users of its mobile app grew to 2 million, a 37% increase compared to the previous quarter.

Hicks said the pandemic has also accelerated its plans to invest in digital by bringing together its various banners under one digital platform and investing in new software that will better enable it to segment audiences and understand customer pain points across the path to purchase.

“Across all our banners, one thing is clear: the importance of customer experience,” he said. “Regardless of how and where our customers choose to shop, a frictionless experience is not simply valuable, it’s critical.”

Basket sizes increased by 34% at Canadian Tire retail stores, particularly within the “active families” customer segment – a sign of changing shopping behaviours. In a trend that started during Q1 and spanned Q2, demand increased in select categories, such as backyard living, gardening and cycling, which the company said “far exceeded historical demand and available inventory.”

On the conference call, Hicks said it remains difficult to anticipate where trends will lead, but added that household penetration remains “quite low” among many of the categories that have experienced growth, an indication that they may continue to outperform other categories for some time.

In addition to O’Brien’s appointment, the company has promoted Paul Draffin to chief supply chain officer and Stephen Brinkley to president of SportChek.