Sustainability, demand for local and supplying fresh produce year-long were among the challenges and changes emerging among independent grocers.
Four grocers from across Canada participated in a panel discussion with Ron Lemaire, president of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, during Fresh Week.
The panel discussion kicked off with a “fireside chat’ between Darrell Jones, president of Save-On-Foods, and Lemaire. Jones highlighted the growing important of sustainability in the produce industry.
“It’s an important and prevalent topic on the West Coast and we’ve been working on this for 25 years. We’ve created recycling centres, but it’s moved beyond that now and there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done. We know that not all plastics are created equal and we’re working with the Retail Council of Canada and CEOs of grocery chains across the country on creating the right mix of plastics, eliminating what we can and keeping what we need. We need to work together, and we’ll accomplish what we need to accomplish this way.”
Independents have been at the heart of the grocery industry for decades and represent approximately 18 per cent of the Canadian market and "they’re in communities across Canada and are the fabric and tapestry of the Canadian economy,” says Tom Shurrie, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers (CFIG) who was invited to the panel along with Dave Pullar, director fresh food for Federated Co-operatives in Saskatchewan; Peter Cavin, owner, Country Grocer in B.C.; Christy McMullen, owner, Summerhill Market in Ontario; and Erin Higdon, vice president of Atlantic Grocery Distributors and Powell’s Supermarkets in NL.
Meeting the demand for local
The pandemic has spurred the growth of local for many grocers.
“Our unique co-op model has been resonating like never before and has galvanized shoppers during the pandemic,” says Pullar. “We’ve grown our market share and have seen significant growth in trust and loyalty among our customers.”
In B.C., Cavin has seen a resurgence in farming but a shift to greenhouse-grown produce.
“There are some people using vertical growing and we fill a lot of our gaps through these greenhouse programs on the island.”
In Newfoundland and Labrador, “buying local has always been a large part of our strategy and we support independent businesses in the province,” says Higdon. However, “Newfoundland and Labrador is known as the rock for a reason and we have the shortest growing season around, so we tend to have more hearty produce like potatoes and carrots. So, to meet demand of more diverse produce supply our vendors and carrier partners have the challenge of a three-day journey, which includes an eight-hour ferry ride. To ensure we can bring fresh produce to our customers we need to maintain strong relationships with these suppliers.”
While Summerhill market does not have the challenges of securing a variety of fresh produce in Ontario given that its stores are located within a 10 km radius of the Ontario Food Terminal, McMullen says her biggest challenge was to adjust a service-heavy business model during the pandemic.
“When the pandemic emerged, we closed our meat and deli counters and when we realized that it was going to remain for a while, we took out our deli counter and half of our meat counter and replaced them with refrigerated shelving. It’s been very successful because we can show more product on the shelf and customers appreciate the grab-and-go, so we’re going to keep this and see maybe in five years if we need to switch back.”
Establishing a strong online presence
Grocery e-commerce accelerated during the pandemic and while independent grocers have all been working on their respective platforms, it presents challenge.
“Before the pandemic began, we partnered with Inabuggy,” says Summerhill’s McMullen. “We’ve been working on a web site, but we had a lot of customers that weren’t ready for online order and were taking a lot of phone orders. It was pretty painful. Many of our loyal customers are an older demographic and they were afraid to come into the store, but we’ve trained our customers and most can now order online. We’re still working on the web site to get it up to the standard that we want.”
Federated Co-operatives was fortunate, says Pullar, because it built its e-commerce platform before the pandemic hit and “through 2020, we’ve been adding stores to it and we’re up to 27 now. It’s the traditional click and collect model and we’re continuing to think about how to build trust and remove friction with the last mile.”
In Newfound and Labrador, Powell’s Supermarkets already had an online presence before the pandemic emerged, “but we’re going to double down on that strategy now,” says Higdon. “We have spent time improving the platform’s functionality to bring as much of the in-store shopping experience to the virtual service and making it as frictionless as possible so our customers will want to engage it. And to accommodate some of our technologically challenged customers, we have a help line so they can call a staff member to assist them when ordering online.”
The current crisis has also shined a light on mental health and grocers from coast to coast have been managing anxiety among staff and customers. For Country Grocer, the need to address this became evident early on, says Cavin.
“It was very stressful in the beginning for our team and our customers. Our HR people have been busy managing mental health and we’ve been getting better. Now we’re doing weekly updates with our team and customers to keep them informed. For customers, they value the shopping experience and we’ve managed to provide them a safe and as normal as can be environment.”