Alfa-Beta Vassilopoulos (AB Vassilopoulos) serves 2.5 million customers every single day – whether in one of its supermarkets across Greece or via its ecommerce site. And, for Vassilis Stavrou, every single one of them is unique and should be treated as such.

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“We are a brand that is always very close to our customers, offering a personal service and product variety,” he tells The CEO Magazine from the company’s headquarters in Gerakas, on the outskirts of the capital, Athens.

Keeping his customer base happy is what still keeps the Brand President motivated after more than 25 years with the company. “What drives me is making sure that we understand what our customers need,” he says. “But it’s also what keeps me awake at night,” he adds with a smile.

“We live in a world that is changing and it’s not just about understanding what they are currently looking for, but also anticipating their future needs. That’s my primary motivation.”

As he looks towards the future, Vassilis has 80 years of company history on which to draw. From small beginnings in 1939, when entrepreneurial brothers Gerasimos and Charalampos Vassilopoulos opened their first standalone grocery store on Voulis Street in central Athens, AB Vassilopoulos has grown in both size and reach and now has more than 500 stores across the country. In 2019 alone, it opened more than 40 new stores in Attica, Macedonia, Peloponnese and Kefalonia.

In the early 1990s, the company was acquired by Belgian retail giant Delhaize Group, now known as Ahold Delhaize after a merger with Dutch retailer Koninklijke Ahold N.V.

in 2015. Today, AB Vassilopoulos forms part of a global Ahold Delhaize portfolio that includes Food Lion, Giant Food, GIANT Food Stores, Hannaford, and Stop & Shop in the US; Delhaize in Belgium and Luxembourg; Albert Heijn, the Netherlands’ largest supermarket chain; and fellow retail brands in Central and South Eastern Europe such as Albert in the Czech Republic and Tempo in Serbia.

Vassilis has held a variety of roles in both AB Vassilopoulos and Delhaize Europe. In the former, he has been Director of Quality Assurance and Food Safety as well as Head of Human Resources. In the latter, he was Senior Vice President for HR/OD and Sustainability.

He also spent three years in neighbouring Romania in charge of another Ahold Delhaize supermarket brand, Mega Image. In 2018, he returned home and joined the company’s C-suite. “Now that I’m back in Greece, the main area of focus is ensuring that the brand is the most-loved one in the Greek retail environment,” he explains.

“AB Vassilopoulos is synonymous with quality, variety and service. It’s a brand that continues to innovate and lead all the new retail developments in the local market.”

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Future-proofing the business

This strategy, he acknowledges, is nothing revolutionary and has always been part of the company’s focus. But it is hardly a secret that the country has faced its fair share of economic struggles in the past decade – struggles that have touched every local business.

“During the Greek debt crisis, we had to focus on other, much more practical, components of the business,” he admits. “But the signs are there that we have reached the bottom. Now, we are looking forward to economic growth, which is going to be translated into consumption. That will only positively impact the business environment in Greece.”

And Vassilis will then be free to concentrate on what he loves most: “building the brand on the exact same principles that it was built on in the past and creating an emotional connection with the customer in a way that differentiates us from everyone else,” he enthuses.

The challenge, however, is integrating these very traditional brand values into a thoroughly modern Greek society. “The demographic is changing, as are the retail sector and customer needs,” Vassilis explains. “Ensuring there is a tomorrow for the company is at the forefront of our mind.”

So, how exactly does he plan to go about future-proofing the business? Vassilis answers that, together with his team, four central pillars of action have been identified. Combined, they comprise the core areas of focus over the next three to five years. The first hardly needs to be prefaced.

“We would like to create a business that delivers exceptional customer service,” he says. “The second pillar involves differentiation through product offering, while the third pillar is about creating a brand that is a social hub, integrated into, and supporting the local communities where we have a presence,” he continues.

Pillar four addresses technology, more specifically “using it in a way that places it in the hands of the consumer, in a way that better serves our customers”.

Vassilis is clued up on the various ways a company can harness the benefits of technology. For a start, there’s ecommerce, a domain he says AB Vassilopoulos pioneered in the country. “We’ve been offering this for many years now, even when the size of the market was small,” he notes.

Today, the approach has inevitably become more omnichannel in character. “We understand that the customer now wants everything where they are, so our physical stores and our ecommerce activities have been integrated.”

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Personal shopper

The company is also using data to reinvent its loyalty program, itself the longest-running in the Greek supermarket sector. “We are moving from a one-for-all approach to a one-to-one approach,” Vassilis says.

The opposite of one size fits all, this personalised program is designed to identify each customer’s exact needs – and to ensure that AB Vassilopoulos has an offer “that brings value to them in the way that they want it”.

From changes such as the electronic health labels being piloted in a select group of stores, to behind-the-scenes forecasting and replenishment tools, each example serves to demonstrate the extent to which technology is facilitating improved decision-making across all of the firm’s channels.

Vassilis also predicts digital marketing will only continue to increase in relevance. “As our customers become more digital, we have to be there and make sure we understand their needs and serve them,” he says.

While his predecessors may have hardly imagined a world where supermarkets communicated with their customers via social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, one buzzword that has held longstanding importance along its supermarket aisles is sustainability.

“It’s something that is very closely linked to our DNA,” Vassilis explains, adding that to the firm, it extends well beyond a nice communication message. “We have really led the way in the local market on this. We partner with local suppliers and organisations to support sustainable economic growth.”

“We partner with local suppliers and organisations to support sustainable economic growth.”

One such example is the recently unveiled Smart Farming initiative, in collaboration with the Bodossaki Foundation in Athens and American Farm School in Thessaloniki.

A program to support primary industry, the project involves the installation of 12 telemetric systems across the country. From vineyards to olive and fruit groves and pasture areas, this state-of-the-art technology supplies producers with real-time data that will allow growers and producers nationwide to make smarter growing decisions.

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Green initiatives

Education is also a priority. “Another initiative is our green bus, which travels to schools and local communities around the country to increase awareness in children of sustainability, what it means and why it is so important,” Vassilis explains.

Now in its third year, this double-decker Mobile Environmental Education and Recycling Centre, as it is officially known, has made stops in destinations as varied as Crete and Thessaloniki to share with children and adults alike important lessons around recycling habits in particular.

“AB Vassilopoulos has a long history of recycling,” says Vassilis. “We were the first supermarket chain in Europe to have an internally certified recycling system.”

From 88 stations across its network, the company recycles more than three million packaging materials, or the equivalent of 16 tonnes, annually. Even more impressive is the fact that since 2008, the company has managed to reduce its energy consumption by more than 25% and its carbon footprint by more than 50%.

Despite this, when it comes to looking after the Earth, the good work has only just begun. In September 2019, the company announced its commitment to reducing plastic by 50% by 2025. “Starting this year, we are abolishing all single-use plastic items,” Vassilis explains. “We are also starting to replace plastic packaging with reusable, recyclable or compostable alternatives.”

At the same time, a commitment was made to reduce food waste by 50% by 2025. “This is an equally important component for us,” Vassilis says.

Along with increasing food donations to those in need in the community, the company is collaborating with Harokopio University in Athens to set a baseline for measuring food waste across its entire supply chain. “In partnership with Boroume, an NGO that fights food waste and malnutrition in Greece, we have also created the first national coalition on food waste.

“These were decisions we made because we really truly believe in sustainability,” he continues. “We would never make such a bold public announcement without doing heavy work behind the scenes to understand the steps that are needed between now and 2025 to ensure that we can deliver on our promise.”

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Employee benefits

Along with its position as one of the nation’s leading supermarkets, the chain is upholding its place as “a responsible neighbour and the best place to work”. And, when it comes to the latter, it’s clear that Vassilis shows his internal team with the same consideration he demonstrates to the community outside.

“After our customers, the second biggest motivation for me is our 14,000 associates,” he says as the conversation turns to the employees. “Every single day, we strive to serve our customers in the best way possible. It’s an enormous job. For me, it’s important to make sure everyone feels that the company is like their home and the best place to work. I want them motivated to remain with us, to take care of customers and to be happy with the working environment we create for them.”

Fast facts:
Via donations valued at 3 million, AB Vassilopoulos provided more than one million meals in 2019 alone.

After all, he adds, if employees feel trusted, there are no better advocates for the company and its brands within the wider community. Staff retention, unsurprisingly, is high. “We have long-lasting relationships with our people with, on average, more than 9.4 years of service,” Vassilis says.

“We offer a lot of on-the-job training to ensure that they have the right skills for their role both today and tomorrow.” Internal promotion, where possible, is also favoured by the company. “I would say that more than 80% of our vacancies are filled from within, which offers good career opportunities to all of our associates.”

Having what he calls one of the most attractive compensation and benefits packages on the local market – one in which the company has invested more than 18 million Euros – undoubtedly has a role to play in the length of time employees stay.

“Benefits range from a private pricing scheme and discount shopping to private healthcare access and a psychological support line,” Vassilis explains. Smaller, but welcome touches include a gift voucher presented on both birthdays and name days.

Even during the darkest hours of Greece’s financial crisis, when, in self-preservation mode, other companies made difficult decisions to reel in staff benefits, AB Vassilopoulos never followed suit. Vassilis is proud of this, saying, “Everything remained in place and I think that really made a difference for us.”

Employees, he acknowledges, are at the heart of the business. “They are the people who can make all the difference,” he says. “Whatever we’re designing has to be delivered by our people at the end of the day. Our associates have brought us here today and they are who will take us to where the company wants to go tomorrow.”

“Our associates have brought us here today and they are who will take us to where the company wants to go tomorrow.”

AB Vassilopoulos also has a proud history of building long-lasting and practical relationships with its suppliers. “For me, partnerships are becoming an even more vital component to our success,” he says.

“We can work together to better establish our customers’ needs and design solutions that are both relevant and add value to them.” Currently, the company has more than 1,500 supply partners, of which more than 90% are based in Greece.

  

Advancing aquaculture

     

Thanks to the company’s partnership with WWF Hellas and Nireus, the world leader in the farming of Mediterranean aquaculture species, Greece has become the first country in Europe to obtain Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certified seabass and sea bream breeding farms. The certification is the culmination of more than six years of hard work and collaboration between the trio.
The benefits of this program are many. “With dedication to Alfa-Beta’s sustainability strategy, we have worked with WWF Hellas and other reputable partners to provide responsible fish choices to the market,” said Dionysis Dionysopoulos, Procurement Support Services and Quality Assurance Director at AB Vassilopoulos, at the time of the announcement in 2019. “From now on, we will be able to offer sea bream and seabass from certified farms with the internationally recognised ASC standard. Thus, we will contribute to minimising the impact of aquaculture on the Greek marine ecosystem, while giving consumers the opportunity to reward good management practices.
“The completion of this pioneering initiative demonstrates the strength and effectiveness of supply chain cooperation in order to minimise the impact of the industry,” the company said in the same statement.
According to the ASC, aquaculture – or aquafarming, as it is also known – as an industry supplies more than half of all seafood consumed around the world. As an organisation, the ASC promotes responsible farming practices. Its logo, part of which is a tick of approval, can be found on the packaging of certified products in supermarket fridges and freezers and denotes a product of strong environmental and social integrity.

Honourable mentions

With such a focus on people, products and the planet, it’s no surprise to learn that recognition – from both inside and outside the retail industry – is rolling in. Last year, AB Vassilopoulos’s 80th anniversary celebrations were crowned by the reception of 10 trophies at the Supermarket Awards, including the highest honour, Top Retailer of the
Year.

“AB Vassilopoulos is synonymous with quality, variety and service. It’s a brand that continues to innovate and lead all the new retail developments in the local market.”

The company was also awarded Gold status in areas such as contribution to the national economy, collaboration with local producers and supply chain excellence. Its joint CSR venture with P&G, an initiative called PROSFERO designed to clean up the country’s beaches, was also recognised at the event.

Another huge source of pride for the company was being named a Protagonist of the Greek Economy for the second year in a row. The title, bestowed on players in the Greek business sector by the Direction Business Network, celebrates the company’s status as a leading player in the supermarket sector and its advancement of the country’s economy, local employment and society in general.

“We are dedicated to creating the most loved supermarket brand in the local market, a name synonymous with quality, variety and service,” Vassilis affirms. “We want to create the best place to shop, the best place to work and be a sustainable neighbour. These are really the pillars that are guiding all of our actions.”

  

First in line

     

AB Vassilopoulos was the first supermarket to:

  • introduce barcodes at its checkouts in Greece
  • implement a customer loyalty program in Greece
  • have a BREEAM-certified green store in Europe

Proudly supported by:

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Mevgal SA

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ELAIS Unilever Hellas

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YIOTIS

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Nestle Hellas

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Athenian Brewery SA