Spotlight on Women in Retail: Catherine Dagenais (EMBA'18), CEO, SAQ

Catherine Dagenais (EMBA’18) is a graduate of the McGill-HÉC Executive MBA program and was named the CEO of the SAQ, Quebec’s liquor commission, in 2018. A member of the SAQ team since 2000, Dagenais has a 360-degree knowledge of the company. Being at the helm of a major government organization is a whole new ball game, one that requires a thick skin and positive attitude towards criticism. Dagenais has this in spades.

“The criticism sometimes, it makes you better, it makes us a better retailer. Customers are also citizens, everybody has an opinion on the SAQ and if you're really paying attention to what they're telling you, it's an opportunity for you to be better,” she said. “Nobody likes criticism, of course, but sometimes constructive criticism brings you to a better place and allows you to change.”

When COVID-19 struck Quebec, Dagenais and her team had to think on their feet to make sure operations could continue despite lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. After all, given the SAQ’s status as a government-run retailer, she had an obligation to ensure revenue as the profit earned by the SAQ is money earned for the government that goes back to its citizens--funding vital public programs.

“Every week, the SAQ gives on average $35 million back to the government so that they can invest in hospitals, schools, whatever the decision may be. The responsibility that I have, that we have at the SAQ is to secure this revenue for the government and it all goes back to the Quebec society,” she explained.

Her primary goal? Ensure continued operations while keeping her employees and customers safe and healthy.

“It was new to all of us. The book on operating a business with a pandemic had not been written,” she said. “The number one priority that is still in effect today is the safety and health of our employees, safety and health of our customers. At first, you know, the first few weeks, our employees were saying Catherine, you need to close. You know, this is crazy.”

But the SAQ managed to implement new sanitary measures almost immediately and coupled with improved delivery and curbside pickup methods, it was a recipe for success. The SAQ reported zero community transmission, within their stores and warehouses, except for one, which taught us the importance of following strict protocol, according to Dagenais.

Now, as restrictions ease in Quebec and things slowly creep back to normal, or our new normal at least, Dagenais says the SAQ is reflecting on the last two years and looking forward.

Everything that's happened in the past two years made us realize how important it is to invest in our supply chain and in our warehouse, which is why almost a year ago we announced a major investment--we are expanding our distribution center in Montreal with a $50 million investment in our infrastructure,” she said, emphasizing the importance of not only thinking about how they can respond to customer needs now, but 10, even 20 years down the road.

Some people, when they envision the future, envision technology without boundaries--but not Dagenais.

“Technology for the sake of technology, I'm not interested in, and I don’t think any of us should be interested. Technology has to respond to a vision,” she said. “If the five pillars of the customer experience expectations are accessibility, discovery, sustainability, price and choice of products, if I'm going to have more technology in my stores, it will have to respond to one of those.”

One of the ways Dagenais and the SAQ have used technology to respond to customer needs is through Inspire, a relationship program designed to accompany the customer throughout their shopping journey. It provides product recommendations, a loyalty program, and the chance to be part of a community of SAQ shoppers, while collecting valuable data that can be used to continuously improve the customer experience. Working the Inspire app into the in-store experience is imperative to Dagenais, she says.

“When you come in the store, you can use your SAQ app and can scan on the screen [in-store], and it'll bring up what you've purchased. So, you're dialoguing with the consultant, and the sales consultant can learn more about your tastes and what you like and can accompany you and it makes that relationship stronger, because he or she understands what you like, what you don't like, you know, just by your buying habits,” she explained. “Technology has to serve the relationship between the customer and the sales consultant.”

Students in the Master of Management in Retailing will be faced with making similar decisions in the classroom and into their careers, which is why the program integrates courses designed to accompany them through real-world scenarios. For example, in RETL 633: Data-Driven Decision Making in Retail, students will learn how data can be used to inform decisions on supply chain management, pricing and promotions, revenue management, inventory policies, and assortment decisions, all using quantitative tools based on Machine Learning, Optimization, and Data Analytics.

When asked about the future of retail in her eyes, Dagenais was quick to emphasize that shopping is fun and can be fun for everyone if the experience is right and continues to evolve to meet the needs of the consumer.

“I think retail is here to stay, but it has to change, because for the consumer to drive the store, to go shopping--it has to be a fun experience. And that experience now versus the experience down the road could be different,” she said.

Photo: Laurence Labat

MMR Program

Learn more about the McGill Master of Management in Retailing Program


The Future of Retail

The Future of Retail

The MMR program has been made possible thanks to generous donations from Aldo Bensadoun, and is offered in partnership with the Bensadoun School of Retail Management.

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