Food and Health | Topics

Covid-19. My grocery store – an essential service

By : Maryse Guénette

Since Covid-19 appeared on the scene, Canadian consumers’ habits have changed a great deal, especially when it comes to food. We take a look at those changes, how retailers are responding, and the consequences for consumers.

In mid-March, when consumers learned that Covid-19 was here and that meant they’d be confined for quite a while, their first reaction was to run to the grocery store – which led to a shortage of pasta, canned fish and toilet paper. Since then, consumers have gone back home and organized their lives so they go out as seldom as possible.

“According to an Angus Reid survey conducted on March 3, 18% of Canadians were either avoiding the grocery store or intending to avoid it,” says Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution policy and senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. “Two weeks later, 52% were intending to avoid shopping for food.” By the end of April, “only 17% of consumers had no fear of going to the grocery store.”

The attempt to avoid food shopping has affected the quantity of goods purchased. The figures speak for themselves: by April 4, 2020, the chains followed by Nielsen, notably the major supermarkets plus Walmart and Costco, had already racked up sales of $195 million more than for the whole of 2019, and the increase was across the board for all food products.

It’s incredible what’s happened in the food industry,” says Charlebois. “It’s been like managing Christmas for weeks on end.”
Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution policy and senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University

Changing behaviour

While consumers are buying more food, 69% of them say they’re shopping at a single location, a store where they can find everything they need. Most of the time, that means a traditional grocery store rather than a discounter (a term used to designate chains like Maxi, Super C and Walmart, where there are fewer products but the prices are generally lower).

Consumers are now well organized and plan their purchases with care. “Spontaneous shopping has nearly disappeared,” says Charlebois. According to Nielsen, shoppers prefer to buy the big, high-profile brands. They’re also buying frozen and canned fruit and vegetables more often than they used to.

Holed up at home, Canadian consumers are heading into the kitchen more often – according to figures published by The Vanier Institute of the Family, four out of 10 people are doing more cooking. And they’re buying accordingly. Nielsen reports that flour sales have risen by 54%, and yeast by 88%.

With the crisis, consumers’ concerns have also changed. “Pre-Covid, we were talking about plant-based proteins, sustainable development and single-use plastic,” says Charlebois. “Today we’re talking about the supply chain, empty store shelves, flour and yeast. People have gone back to basics.”

Adapting at the speed of light

Of course, grocers have also had to adapt quickly, both managing inventory to prevent contamination and instituting hygienic and distancing measures. Most stores have closed their self-serve counters, including the bulk products section.

One noteworthy consequence has been a reduction in the number of specials, at the request of suppliers. Francis Parisien, Nielsen’s VP for Eastern Canada, sees several pandemic-related reasons for this, including consumers’ lack of interest in discounts and the difficulty of managing specials when the production and supply chains are already under so much pressure.

Some merchants have been quicker than others to adapt in terms of online services and home delivery, which they were already offering. But that’s not the case for all the stores. “For some, the pandemic came too fast,” says Charlebois.

Impact on prices?

How will all this affect consumer prices?

For the moment, we don’t expect to see any effect on inflation. Before the crisis, we were predicting 4% inflation, and that’s still what we’re predicting. However, since consumers will be spending more of their budget on food, the inflation rate could become a bigger factor.”
Sylvain Charlebois

Luckily, the more you cook at home, the more you save. You get a lot more for your dollar at the grocery store than at the restaurant,” says Charlebois. “Before Covid-19, Canadians were spending an average of 38% of their food budgets eating out…”

After Covid

Will consumers’ and grocers’ changed behaviours survive the crisis? No one can say with any certainty. But Charlebois believes that consumers’ sense of food insecurity will stick around for a while, meaning they’ll continue to cook at home. An Angus Reid survey released in April seems to support that theory. According to Charlebois, the survey shows that 62% of Canadians plan to cook more after the pandemic, and 56% think they will do more entertaining.

Charlebois also sees growth in the home gardening sector. As he wrote in La Presse on April 19: “Online sales of compost and seeds have risen by 250%, and planting supplies by 150%. Online sales of gardening products are rising all over the western world.”

Are all these changes here to stay for companies? Charlebois believes the answer is yes, at least for online shopping. “People will slowly become more and more interested in e-commerce. I think that five years from now, at least 7% of consumers will be shopping online on a regular basis. That’s a lot faster than we thought. Covid will turn out to have speeded things up… And the network will have to adjust accordingly.”