Farm Boy, Ottawa tech firms cooking up a retail revolution

Local analytics firm omNovos' data-mining know-how set to drive Farm Boy's new app
From left, Iversoft co-founders Matthew Strentse and Vicki Iverson, with omNovos CEO Allan Zander and Iversoft chief marketing officer Graeme Barlow. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

The leader of one of Ottawa’s best-known companies says the time has come for the iconic food retailer to step up its digital game.

Farm Boy’s Jeff York has watched a host of other retail firms launch apps over the past few years in an effort to enhance the shopping experience for consumers, both in-store and online. But Farm Boy has remained largely on the sidelines of the digital retail revolution.

Until now, that is. The chain known for its freshly prepared meals and wide selection of produce has teamed up with two other local companies to create an app that could eventually do everything from alerting customers that nearby items are on sale to allowing shoppers to pay for their groceries without having to line up at a checkout counter.

“Most of our customers have mobile devices now, where five years ago, they didn’t,” York says. “There’s a whole bunch of marketing angles.”

York, whose company now operates 15 stores in the Ottawa region plus nearly a dozen more in other parts of the province, has clearly done his homework.

According to Statistics Canada, more than three-quarters of Canadians owned a smartphone in 2016, up from 55 per cent just two years earlier. With access to such powerful technology at their fingertips no matter where they go, Canadian consumers now have a “baseline expectation” that the stores they shop in will have a digital presence, says Michael Mulvey, a marketing professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management.

High-tech tools

For Farm Boy customers, that could mean a friendly text sent to shoppers’ mobile devices reminding them to pick up a package of those scrumptious chocolate chip cookies before they leave. Mulvey calls it a modern twist on Kmart’s old “Blue Light Special” routine, where the big-box retailer would flash a police siren to alert customers to sales in a particular part of the store.  

“You can do that in a much more elegant way using current technology,” he says with a smile. “What they’re really trying to do is get share of wallet. Most consumers don’t mind those friendly suggestions over time.”

Today’s high-tech analytics software offers retailers a much clearer picture of consumers’ shopping habits than ever before – and several companies here in the capital are at the forefront of developing those tools.

Kanata-based omNovos, which specializes in mining data from point-of-sale and customer relationship management technology to help its clients better understand their customers, is creating the back-end infrastructure for Farm Boy’s new app. Meanwhile, east-end firm Iversoft, which has been working with the grocery chain for about a year on its digital marketing strategy, is building the user interface.

“It’s new territory for us,” York says. “We wanted to partner with local companies that … are excited about working with us and exploring this space with us. We want to find out what’s going to work and then … roll it out fast.”

For omNovos, which spun out of local firm DataKinetics in 2015, the “multi-year, seven-digit” contract with Farm Boy has been a watershed. CEO Allan Zander says he hopes it will be a springboard to growth for his company, which employs about 20 of its own workers in addition to sharing five with its parent organization.

“This really can be an Ottawa-based success story,” he says, adding he expects his firm to book about $2 million in sales in 2018 and is predicting annual revenues of $25 million within five years.

In addition to its deal with Farm Boy, omNovos recently inked a contract with a large U.S. office supply company and is in talks with a “major fashion retailer” and a big-name American sports ownership group.

“We’re always hopeful to build a billion-dollar company,” Zander says. “We definitely do think we’re on to something, and we definitely do think that we’re doing things that are a little bit more unique in the market around this space. Banks have been doing (data analytics) forever. We’re now just sort of taking that capability and those smarts and applying that in a retail context and putting it in the hands of clerks or the consumer or a store manager.”

Iversoft chief marketing officer Graeme Barlow says it’s encouraging to see Ottawa businesses collaborating on a large-scale project in a rapidly growing sector of the retail economy. OmNovos has subcontracted the marketing firm to work on the app.

“The more we can work with Canadian industry leaders, the happier we are,” Barlow says.

“We see it as a turning point for the company in terms of where we can go in the connected retail world.”

He says he thinks Ottawa is just scratching the surface of its potential to evolve into a digital retail technology powerhouse.

“There’s a huge opportunity coming in the shift in the way consumers shop and interact with brands. If we can help make Ottawa one of the global leaders for technology in that space, we’re pretty excited.”