Sobeys grows excitement for produce with in-store farms

From Shopper Marketing Report: Having gardens in-store will cut the grocer's carbon footprint and capitalize on home cooking.

Sobey's Infarm for Notch

After first launching it as a pilot project last year, Sobeys’ parent company Empire is ramping up the roll-out of in-store farming units across three full-service banners to help bring excitement to the produce aisle and tap consumer interest in fresh ingredients.

The farm units provide a controlled environment that facilitate growing a variety of herbs, microgreens and leafy greens directly in the store, helping cut out emissions that typically occur in the supply chain. Each farming unit is connected to a central platform that monitors and adjusts the growing conditions as needed, resulting in crops that are harvested using 95% less water and 75% less fertilizer than traditional agricultural methods.

In addition to being more eco-friendly, the use of the vertical farms “brought excitement into our stores during this time of global pandemic,” says Niluka Kottegoda, VP of customer experience at Sobeys. “It [also] fits with a few of our values that are very important to us in terms of being hyperlocal, environmentally conscious and sustainably focused. And most importantly, bringing the freshest possible product to our customers.”

Sobey's Infarm for NotchThe grocer first launched the units in a handful of Thrifty Foods and Safeway stores in B.C. in the spring of 2020 through an exclusive Canadian partnership with Berlin-based InFarm, a hydroponics company whose tech has been used by 30 major food retailers across North America and Europe.

Sobeys’ parent company is now in the process of bringing them to 16 Sobeys locations in the GTA – with the possibility of installing them in additional banners in the future. Outside of Ontario, InFarm’s units have been added to nearly 30 stores in Vancouver and Victoria, and at least one location in the cities of Halifax, Calgary and Edmonton, with plans to roll them out to around 20 additional stores in each city.

At launch, the units were used to grow herbs, with the goal of catering to the foodie crowd who cook more frequently at home, are fairly adventurous with their food, and appreciate the taste profile and freshness of their produce, Kottegoda says. It has now expanded to leafy greens, which she says are more mainstream and popular with more customers.

“We’re always looking for unique and innovative ways to enhance our customers’ experience in our stores,” she says. “It’s been an interesting journey, transitioning through what [the world] used to be into the COVID world.”

Sobeys is expanding the program as home cooking remains on trend due to the pandemic, giving customers access to the freshest-possible herbs and leafy greens, which they can use in their salads or even as a garnish for cocktails, Kottegoda says. “We’re trying to enhance and complement the offer that we already have in our stores, and give customers… a bit of choice around what they want to use as ingredients.”

Sobey's Infarm for NotchThe units themselves are fairly self-explanatory and haven’t required Sobeys to invest in communicating to customers how they should be used. Once the crops are ready to harvest, they are placed in front of the unit for display and purchase. Only trained farmers have access to contents inside the units, Kottegoda notes.

To help generate excitement during installation, the stores cover the units until the seeds and seedlings have grown enough to be seen by customers. “We say something’s growing inside – that it’s going to be unveiled to you – to create a little curiosity and a little excitement around it,” Kottegoda says. “It’s also educating our customers that this product is actually grown in the stores right in front of them.”

Vertical farming remains relatively new to mainstream grocery but is on the up globally, she says. By 2026, a report from Allied March Research suggests the industry could be worth up to US$12.77 billion globally, up from US$2.23 billion today.