Sobeys on 104 Street Downtown: Evolving from urban fresh to neighbourhood store

On August 15, Sharon and I walked past the Sobeys on 104 Street Downtown as we do nearly every day. On that day however, something was different – the windows of the Sobeys were completely covered by a vinyl fruit-and-veggies-on-white design. I promptly tweeted my dislike for the change, and made a note to follow-up.

Sobeys on 104 Street
You can see the vinyl coverings, and on the left, that they actually create quite a lot of glare

Over the next couple of weeks, it became apparent that a lot of people disliked the new window coverings. Dozens of residents (myself included) contacted DECL to complain. Some took matters into their own hands, like Mark Gitzel who staged a sidewalk chalk protest. The existing thread complaining about Sobeys on Connect2Edmonton reignited with people complaining about the windows. Chris Buyze, President of the Downtown Edmonton Community League, sent a letter to Sobeys on August 17, one of many messages that Sobeys received during that time. While the vinyl window coverings themselves caused a bit of an uproar, I think for a lot of people the issue was seen as the last straw. Their urban Sobeys had slowly evolved into just another grocery store, out of touch with its customers, and now it was physically separating itself from the street.

The Sobeys on 104 Street opened as Sobeys Urban Fresh in May 2008, a “hotly anticipated grocery boutique.” With six Red Seal chefs, a sushi bar, a café featuring coffee from local roaster St. City Roasters, a sizable selection of local and unique products, articulated walls and large bay windows in the café, it was not your average grocery store. It was the first grocery store to open downtown since Woodward’s Food Floor closed (the Save-on-Foods on 109 Street is technically in Oliver). It wasn’t perfect, but people were excited by the new store.

Sobeys Urban Fresh
The Sobeys on 104 Street in May 2008. You can see the clear windows and the articulated wall on the right open with people sitting in the outdoor café space.

All of that is now gone. The sushi bar is gone, the local selection has disappeared, the café sits empty, and the windows were rarely open this summer. The signage still says “Urban Fresh” but it has become a lot like other grocery stores. For a resident like me, it raises the question of whether or not the store will still be there in the future.

It was in this context that I sat down with Mike Lupien, the Director of Communications for Sobeys West, this week. We met at Credo Coffee, just down the street from the store.

I first asked him about the windows. “It caught me off guard personally, I didn’t realize it was happening.” Mike told me that when comments first started coming in, he thought it was related to the bright orange signs advertising Sobeys’ new lower prices. He quickly got in touch with DECL however, and organized a meeting for the end of August to discuss the situation. “It was a great opportunity for us to tell them why we did it, but also for them to tell us their concerns,” Mike said. “We got a good understanding of where they were coming from.” I asked Ian O’Donnell, Development Chair for the Downtown Edmonton Community League, why they pushed for the meeting. “DECL has an inherent responsibility to engage and respond to situations that arise within the downtown boundaries. Part of our mandate is to ensure that changes that occur in or to our downtown are positive and continue to improve upon what we already have as a community.” Ian agreed the meeting was a productive first step.

DECL presented three primary complaints. The first is that the the vinyl windows violate elements of the Jasper Avenue Main Street Commercial Zone (JAMSC) bylaw and the Urban Design Framework for Downtown Streets as set out in the Capital City Downtown Plan. Secondly, because the vinyl diminishes the store’s internal/external visibility, it would seem to go against the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) guidelines. And thirdly, the vinyl is ugly. It creates a physical barrier and doesn’t fit with the rest of the aesthetic on 104 Street.

Sobeys on 104 Street

Mike told me there were four main reasons the vinyl went up on the windows. The first was visibility of the store. “When people are driving down Jasper Avenue, they never notice the store,” Mike said. “You only see the sign if you’re going west.” I told him I would confidently bet that the majority of the store’s customers are not driving to the store, and he conceded that was probably true. The people who shop at that store either live or work in the area, for the most part. Even if someone was driving home and noticed the store, they’d have to find parking if they wanted to stop, and with 25 Sobeys and 4 IGA stores in the capital region, chances are there’s one with a big parking lot closer to home.

The other three reasons make more sense. The sunlight streaming into the store has had a negative impact on the produce department, at times the cashiers have had problems with glare on their screens, and the addition of shelves and boxes along the east side makes for a less appealing view from the street as you look in the windows.

At the meeting in late August, the group discussed potential solutions. It sounds like DECL got their point across, because Mike confirmed that taking the vinyl down completely is what will ultimately resolve the issue. “We’d like to work towards that,” he told me. As David Staples reported this week, they’ve taken the first step and have cut the white around the fruit out of the coverings. “We’re also looking at what we can do inside the store to deflect the light,” Mike told me, confirming he has started discussions with a designer that Sobeys has engaged in the past.

Sobeys on 104 Street
Vinyl with the white gone

Turning to some of the other issues, Mike and I talked about the changes the store has undergone over the last three years. Some changes were made for business reasons, others were the result of feedback from customers. “We’ve adapted the selection to what people were asking for,” he said, and that’s why you no longer find products like camel or alligator. “The oyster bar didn’t go over very well,” Mike told me. “We were getting rid of more than we were selling.”

The windows have definitely been closed more lately than in the past, but for good reason Mike said. “We had a wet summer and lots of mosquitoes,” he said. “I know Evan, the store manager, wanted to have them open.” He also said that the construction of Icon 2 had an impact, as the amount of dust in the area significantly increased.

As for the local selection, Mike said they still try to offer local products. “We start as close to Edmonton as we can, and then move out.” In some cases there have been issues with suppliers, but the most common problem is that local suppliers just can’t keep up with the volume that Sobeys needs. He said they’re trying to find ways to address the problem. “We want to help local suppliers get to the point where they can work with us.”

Mike pointed out that there has been some positive changes as well. Prices are lower now than they were, the store now uses the same flyer as the rest of the Sobeys stores, and the assortment of products is larger than when it opened. “We’re going to expand further as well.” He told me they are keeping the coffee bar, but may reorient the space to make room for a few more shelves.

Sobeys on 104 Street

I told Mike that I felt much better about the store after talking to him, though I was still opposed to the windows. “If there’s something wrong, we want to know about it,” he said. “If there’s something missing, we want to hear about that too.” He’s confident that the window issue will be resolved as well.

“It’s a community store, it’s a neighbourhood store,” Mike said. “We want to be here, and we want to be here for the long-term.”

11 thoughts on “Sobeys on 104 Street Downtown: Evolving from urban fresh to neighbourhood store

  1. In a way, I can understand the changes that have happened. I use that Sobey’s for probably 90% of my grocery shopping, because I love being able to walk there and do more, smaller shopping trips. But it makes me laugh that they sell 18 varieties of dried mushrooms, but 1 (last time I was in there) type of toothpaste.

    Personally I’d prefer it to be more like a grocery store than whatever people envisioned it being when it first opened. I want to be able to actually use it as a grocery store. I don’t want to have to drive to another store to do a ‘big shop’ to get the things I need to live. I need toothpaste, I don’t need 10 different types sea salt (another product line they seem to have a crazy variety of).

    We should be careful with all this downtown renewal stuff that we don’t just focus on all the idealist things (like an oyster bar) and forget that we need the staples of life too.

    The vinyl doesn’t really bother me. I might even go as far as to say I like it. I’m sure in the winter when everything is dead and downtown is devoid of much colour that it would be a welcome splash on Jasper Ave.

  2. I used to live by the store in 2008 when it opened. In the mornings I’d get my coffee there and after work I’d often stop for groceries. Then it went downhill. Fast. The selection was terrible, the prices outrageous and the prepared food lacklustre. The straws that broke the camel’s back, per say, were when the baker told me all the breads use the same base; it’s not a bakery, there were no interesting artisan breads. The next was buying the a small corn salsa, getting charged something like 8 dollars and it was awful, truly awful. Then, one day I asked for bouillon, they didn’t have any, not even oxo cubes, or at first even know what I was talking about; high end grocery? I stopped by once since 2009 after a few drinks to buy a frozen pizza and haven’t been back since. 

  3. The first step should have been to approach someone within the business itself. If this were a locally owned shop, that probably would have been the natural approach. By approaching the DECL as step one, this action reinforces the barrier that inherently exists between chain owned organizations and their communities, and ritualizes the communication by way of an advocacy bureaucracy rather than solving the problem. Chain stores can get their backs up in just the same as local store owners do; the approach was downright un-neighbourly.

    1. Lots of people did contact the store first. But that’s not always going to help. In this case, not even the store manager knew the vinyl was going up, so who exactly do you talk to? I think having DECL represent residents also streamlined the process.

  4. I agree with Alexander, I think awnings have to potential to add charm to the area. It would be nice is this Sobey’s was more the italian market or Sunterra. But for now, a shop downtown is great.

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