Downtown Edmonton’s Sobeys on 104 Street will close its doors on July 31

After six years of serving the central downtown Edmonton area, Sobeys will close its 104 Street location on July 31. It’s a disappointing end to a store that, while full of promise at its launch in May 2008, never really lived up to its potential. It’s also a high profile loss for 104 Street, which has seen a number of businesses close over the last year or so, and a potential setback for Edmonton’s ongoing downtown revitalization.

Keri Scobie, Communications Manager for Sobeys West, confirmed the closure yesterday. “It was a really tough decision to make,” she told me. “We knew this was going to be a hot topic of discussion.”

Sobeys on 104 Street

Why has Sobeys decided to close the 104 Street location? The bottom line is…it’s all about the bottom line.

A spokesperson told the Globe and Mail late Wednesday that Sobeys had “identified a number of underperforming stores and we have made the decision to close these stores.” It appears the 104 Street location is one of those underperforming stores, and there approximately 50 in total across the country, according to a Sobeys news release:

“Sobeys has determined that consistently underperforming retail stores, representing approximately 50 stores (1.5 million of total gross square footage) and 3.8 percent of the total retail network gross square footage, will close. Approximately sixty percent of the affected stores are located in Western Canada.”

Sobeys is planning to close three other stores in Edmonton as well: Sobeys Mainstreet in Mill Woods at 6440 28 Avenue, Heritage Sobeys at 2011 111 Street, and Clock IGA at 15445 Stony Plain Road. Employees received letters upon arriving at work yesterday informing them of the planned closures. They’ll have the option of transferring to another location. “We have a lot of vacancies at other stores in Edmonton,” Keri said.

In order to get approval for its purchase of Safeway Canada, Sobeys agreed to sell 30 stores in Western Canada. Co-op agreed to purchase three stores in Edmonton and another three in the region, and the fact that the 104 Street location wasn’t one of them was seen as a vote of confidence from Sobeys. Now Sobeys has made it clear that assumption was invalid.

Two Urban Fresh locations in Toronto are also closing, but the second Edmonton location at College Plaza will remain open, as will ten other locations throughout Ontario.

From Urban Fresh to Closure

At the start, it seemed as though Sobeys wouldn’t have any problem attracting customers. “Again and again, the staff at the front door of the new Sobeys on Jasper Avenue and 104th Street smile and apologize, as they turn away would-be customers,” Paula Simons wrote in May 2008, just days before the store officially opened to the public.

When it first opened, the Sobeys on 104 Street was meant to bring a European-style market to downtown. It was the first location to bring Sobeys’ “urban fresh” concept to life – smaller, featuring local food, more prepared items, a cafe, and other urban-friendly amenities. Relationships with the popular City Market were touted, and excitement was high. While initial feedback was mostly positive, it wasn’t long before elements of the initial vision started to fall away. The building still retains the “urban fresh” branding, but that long ago lost any meaning.

Sobeys on 104 Street

In the summer of 2011, Sobeys on 104 Street caused an uproar in the community when it covered its windows with vinyl. Over the first three years of its existence, the store had fully transformed from “urban fresh” to just another grocery store, and residents saw the vinyl windows as the last straw. Sobeys responded to the criticism by meeting with the community and partially removing the vinyl coverings. The communications director at the time, Mike Lupien, indicated that Sobeys wanted to make the store work. “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.”

Today Keri elaborated on why the 104 Street location was identified for closure. “What happens is the size of the store impacts our ability to deliver our brand promise,” she said. “The smaller formats make it harder to deliver what we want to deliver.” She noted the coffee bar takes up quite a bit of room, and shoppers have complained about the smaller selection of products available. I asked her if any alternatives were considered, such as renovating and changing the layout, but she said “given the space and what we have, it was determined it was the best decision to close.”

As a resident on the street, I’m sad to see the Sobeys close. It was great to be able to walk down the block to pickup some milk or a last minute ingredient. I do think the store suffered from long lineups at the checkout (and no express or self-checkouts) and generally indifferent staff, and that made the experience of shopping there much less enjoyable than it could have been. Though prices did come down over the years, they were still higher than other locations, such as Save-On-Foods over on 109 Street.

What’s the impact on downtown?

Cecil Place is the name of the building that houses Sobeys Urban Fresh, named in recognition of the infamous Cecil Hotel. Developed by John Day who purchased the old hotel in May 2003, Cecil Place was designed by Arndt Tkalcic Bengert Architecture and cost $12.6 million to build (it took 14 months to complete). In 2007, it won an Edmonton Urban Design Award. Jurors commented at the time, “if you want to get people downtown this is the way to do it.”

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Cecil Place in March 2008, photo by Dave Sutherland

The closure is a loss for 104 Street and downtown, no question. It’s not fatal however, and with new condo towers well underway and the addition of Earth’s General Store in place of the old Pangea organic market further north on 104 Street, I don’t believe the loss of Sobeys will have a lasting impact. Demand will continue to grow as more and more people choose to live downtown and all those new condo towers fill up, and I imagine finding a new tenant for the space today will be much easier than it was back in 2007. Unlike in the past, 104 Street isn’t a gamble anymore.

Sobeys leased the space in Cecil Place, there will be no covenants impacting the ability of another grocer to move in. “That’s not applicable for this location,” Keri clarified. She said the majority of the Sobeys locations being closed were leased.

“If there is a positive,” Keri told me, “it’s that there is a lot of exciting development on the street really reinvigorating that neighbourhood.” However, the bright future of 104 Street wasn’t enough to save the store. “Closing the store was the best decision for us to make.”

What will replace the Sobeys? That remains to be seen, but there’s few other locations downtown that are as attractive as the corner of 104 Street and Jasper Avenue. If I could wave my magic wand, I’d love to see the location turn into a year-round space for the City Market. One can dream, right?

Sobeys in Edmonton

As for Sobeys in Edmonton, Keri told me that Sobeys remains committed. “We see Edmonton as a good market, which is why we’re investing here,” she said. Sobeys is opening a brand new location tomorrow morning in Newcastle at 16943 127 Street. “It’s a new concept store, the third in Western Canada,” Keri explained. “It features a revamped store layout, vibrant colors, and a focus on food discovery throughout the store.” Echoing what was said of Urban Fresh when it opened, Keri suggested the new store will “have a real market feel to it.”

In the cuthroat grocery business, competition is fierce, and Sobeys is constantly evaluating their locations. “We have had great success here in Edmonton,” Keri said, “that’s why we’re bringing the new concept store here.”

Unfortunately, the 104 Street store just hasn’t worked out for Sobeys from a business point-of-view. “We want to thank the community downtown who came in and supported the store,” Keri said.

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.”