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Canadian grocers adapt as COVID-19-driven online demand grows

Last Updated Apr 13, 2020 at 7:33 am PDT

FILE - Empty aisles at the Save-on-Foods at Cambie Street and 7th Avenue. (Courtesy Natalie Tung)

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VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — With a weeks-long wait for online grocery deliveries and complaints about product availability, Canadians are scrambling to access basic food supplies in a timely manner.

Meanwhile, the number of items on sale and promotions have plummeted as grocers ask people who can to shop in store to lessen the load of internet sales, says Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.

“The traditional grocers are hard-wired to focus on one metric and that happens to be foot traffic,” says Charlebois. “They’ve never really thought about e-commerce as a legitimate option but to be honest, the vast majority of Canadians four weeks ago thought buying food online was a far-fetched idea and look where we are now.”

Now, companies, which have been dabbling in upgrades to e-commerce for the last three years (since Amazon purchased Whole Foods, according to Charlebois), are in damage control mode, trying to catch up.

“We’ve heard rumours that perhaps some grocers may convert some of their stores into pick stores to support their e-commerce strategy for the months of April and May but nothing has been confirmed yet,” says Charlebois.

He says major chains have been reluctant to switch to online sales as foot traffic has been a reliable and tested method to make sales.

However, with so much demand, stores are putting fewer and fewer items on sale as well, he warns.

“What we’ve noticed across the country is weekly flyers are getting thinner and there are fewer promotions offered to customers in stores. In fact, online it’s even worse, there’s basically no discounted food products at all,” he says, adding food prices are expected to inflate about four per cent this year.

“Unfortunately customers will need to be patient on the discounting side because  we don’t expect a whole lot of that to happen until we’ve reached the other side of the pandemic.”

Charlebois suggests visiting multiple websites to get a sense of what is available each week and to look to small businesses and neighbourhood purveyors to get through.

“Supply chains are becoming more democratized as a result of COVID. A lot of different small shops, farmers, processors, small to medium sized companies everywhere are trying to reach out and try to connect with consumers,”

“Frankly a lot of people just want to avoid the grocery store so there’s a lot of activity happening online,”

He says despite the signals empty shelves are sending – Canada’s food supply system is not at risk of collapsing.