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Awards2023 Innovator Award in Whole Health: Charles Buhagiar, Metro Ontario

2023 Innovator Award in Whole Health: Charles Buhagiar, Metro Ontario

Charles Buhagiar, category manager for OTC and health and wellness for Metro Ontario Inc.

The Grocery Business Cutting Edge Innovator in Whole Health award recognizes individuals and businesses with outside-the-box approaches to supporting the needs of health-conscious consumers.

This year’s winner is Charles Buhagiar, category manager for OTC and health and wellness for Metro Ontario Inc.

What are the biggest changes you have seen in the category for grocery?

Health and wellness products are more readily available than ever before. At Metro, our goal is to provide better-for-you products to as many people as possible. You can walk down any aisle in our store and find a wide variety of wellness products identified by our “My Health My Choices” shelf tag. The tags call out multiple attributes to meet various dietary needs. We integrate wellness products within mainstream so our customers can see all options within each set.

Product quality has improved significantly. Many brands are appealing to a broader group of customers by increasing their attributes. Customers expect their plant-based products to also be non-GMO and their coffee to be not only organic but also fair-trade. Customer expectations are high and they’re voting with their wallets.

Also, many large CPG companies are expanding their portfolios into wellness, recognizing this is the future of food and not just a trend. Some are even relaunching brands to showcase better-for-you attributes.   

What is the grocery retail channel doing right to promote health and wellness, and what can they do better?

We utilize advertising vehicles to promote wellness, and have expanded our digital platforms to tell a story and call out attributes. We educate customers and share recipes that encourage trial. We leverage our pharmacy staff and Nature Signature teams to help customers with dietary questions.

We’re proud of our partnerships with several wellness organizations to help spread the message at Metro. 

I frequently ask myself and my team what things we can do better. The day we are satisfied with “status quo” is the day we fall behind.

What do you like most about your work?

I’m in my 38th year at Metro, but the last eight years in health and wellness have been the highlight, as I’m passionate about this industry. Keeping up with the fast pace of innovation and gaining extensive product knowledge has been rewarding but also challenging. I love to hear each story about how a brand got started and am thankful for the opportunity to meet several founders. I enjoy working with Metro’s amazing cross-functional teams, and collaborating with each of them to bring wellness brands to our customers has been very rewarding. We all share in this award.

Do you have a memorable career moment?

This award is one of them and I’m extremely honoured for the recognition. Another moment that stands out is a product launch that was a big win for Metro. I worked with our broker to achieve a first-to-market goal on Halo Top. The success required a team effort, including daily conversations with operations and weekly truckloads to stores, exceeding our five-year sales forecast within the first year. It was an amazing experience and I hope to replicate it soon with another brand launch.

Overall, my most memorable moment was when we launched the “My Health My Choices” program at Metro. It’s been incredibly rewarding to see it come to life with 50 attributes called out across thousands of SKUs from all departments, and utilizing digital features to showcase the best brands to our customers.

What current trends in health and wellness do you think have staying power?

Trends evolve for the better as they pick up momentum to meet customer expectations. A great example is gluten-free, as these options used to be minimal, and the products didn’t taste very good. Today, there is a wide selection, with several brands expanding their attributes to include allergen-free and developing recipes that have drastically improved the taste.

Plant-based continues to expand and customers are asking for cleaner ingredient decks that taste delicious. They want more variety than just another burger. Innovation in this space has been impressive over the past year, with healthier ingredients, different formats, ethnic profiles, and family portions, allowing for a resurgence in the market.

Many are recognizing their purchases impact not only their families, but also the environment, so sustainability and social responsibility are even more important for today’s customers.

More people are proactive with their health, and they’re learning to take care of their health at an earlier age so they can live longer with a more fulfilling lifestyle. This trend exploded during COVID and continues to be at the top of customers’ minds. They’re consuming healthy food now versus medicine later!

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