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ColumnsConsumers weigh in on grocers’ pandemic management

Consumers weigh in on grocers’ pandemic management

The last two years have been a wild ride for the grocery business – countless public health regulations, ever-changing measures from one jurisdiction to another, mandates, employees’ physical and mental stress

by Sylvain Charlebois

It’s important to take stock of how consumers feel about what happened and how it may have affected the sector’s image.

With Caddle’s support, we measured consumer opinion on the food industry’s performance during this period. We asked how Canadians felt about the industry’s ability to provide food since the start of the pandemic, and they were almost four times more likely to have been impressed by it. It’s hard to argue against such an outpouring of gratitude and is something the industry should be celebrating.

Giving credit to employees and management was also evident in the results. Respondents were almost 10 times more likely to credit employees for how the industry performed. This is likely why the hero-pay discussions have been so public. But management also deserves some credit, according to the survey results; Canadians were almost four times as likely to give credit to the management of stores. The sentiment was not as strong as for employees, but still, the results are interesting. Consumers can better relate to what employees are doing, due to the frontline nature of most jobs, while management remains a mystery for many.

But some challenges remain, and inflation has everything to do with it. When consumers were asked if they felt the food industry was doing all it could to keep the price of food low, the results weren’t encouraging. Only 30.2 per cent of respondents said they believed the industry was doing the best job it could, to varying degrees. Rumours of collusion and class-action lawsuits in Quebec and British Columbia have tarnished the industry’s image, and the shadow of the bread price-fixing story isn’t helping.

Prices are likely to continue to rise for the foreseeable future, so grocers will have to contend with a growing number of skeptics. Grocers also know consumers are willing to look for food beyond traditional channels now, more so than before the pandemic. In fact, 37.5 per cent of Canadians are planning to purchase food from suppliers that aren’t recognized major grocers or restaurant outlets. The way grocers define their competition has changed. That’s probably because consumers are looking for options, to seek protection from relentless food inflation.

The survey tells us most Canadians believe we have a capable, well managed grocery industry, but it also tells us they need help and some assurance that the industry takes illegal collusion seriously.

If the grocery industry wants to preserve its good standing with the Canadian public, it needs to communicate to consumers what it is doing to help them. And the solution shouldn’t just be coming from grocers themselves; it should also come from farther up the food supply chain.

Sylvain Charlebois is a professor in food distribution and policy, and senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University [email protected]

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