The New Normal – How COVID-19 impacted Western Canadian grocers and what the future might look like now

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By Carly Peters

There’s no playbook when it comes to a pandemic and when COVID-19 hit, grocers had to pivot in every direction. From finding solutions to supply chain disruption, setting up e-commerce solutions, to protecting employees and customers, this essential service had to rise to the occasion to ensure the survival and wellness of the communities they serve. As the industry is being asked to adapt once again as COVID-19 continues to move on, some of the lessons learned will stay in place in order to create a new normal.

No one will ever forget the images of people clearing out shelves, carts full of toilet paper as the WHO declared a world-wide state of emergency. Grocers were forced to operate at “business as usual” levels, when things were far from it.

“How quickly grocery stores understood their essential role and worked tirelessly to assure the public there would be no food shortages was nothing short of incredible,” states Diane J. Brisebois, president and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada (RCC). “In one shopping trip people were buying products at a one to two month purchasing level. And empty shelves only signified there just wasn’t enough hours in the day for grocers to put out the product.”

Brisebois stated retailers had to not only adjust their relationship with distribution centres and vendors, but also had to quickly source out alternative avenues when they projected product shortages.

Altering logics was also essential to keeping products on shelves. The RRC lobbed many provincial governments, such as Ontario, to lift the limit on hours for store deliveries for a more efficient movement of goods from warehouses to stores.

The organization also worked to get packaging and labelling restrictions lifted so vendors could readjust their production lines - which often produced products for retail and foodservice at a 50/50 rate.

Even with all these adjustments, pulling from an already disrupted supply chain was no easy feat, especially in a country were food diversity has increased over the years. The Canadian food system had many pre-COVID issues, explains Dr. Simon Somogyi, the Arrell Chair in the Business of Food, and Director of the Longo’s Food Retail Laborator at the University of Guelph.

“70 per cent of the food we eat is made in Canada, particularly in the case of packaged shelf stable goods. But we import about 65 per cent of the vegetables and fruit we eat as its too cold to grow produce outside from November through May and have to get it mainly from places like USA or Mexico. The fact that the Canadian border to the USA remained open was critical to our food security now and pre-COVID. Because of COVID-19, the Canadian dollar dropped dramatically against the USD in late March and that had big impact on imported food prices.”

He adds along with an increase in price on some imported produce, meat took a hit thanks to temporary plant closures, either due to workers contracting the illness or processors who had to modify the layouts of their plants. Spacing out workers, getting PPE also slowed down processing and the supply of Canadian meat to grocery shelves.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers’ (CFIG) concerns about beef and poultry supply issue led to government issuing a ministerial exemption for provincially inspected meat. “This was a direct result of independent retail grocers in Alberta raising the issue of beef supply with us,” says CFIG. “The resulting exemption helped alleviate the supply issue by allowing provincially inspected meat to cross provincial borders, which is normally not permitted.”

CFIG also set about establishing and renewing lines of communication between associations representing producers, such as eggs, dairy, poultry, and beef. That line of communication for example, pushed back a planned increase in egg prices by a couple of months.

“There are some parts of the country, particularly in rural and remote areas that had some challenges in terms of supply. Those issues need to be discussed as we hopefully begin to come out of the pandemic,” CFIG states.

However, due to the CFIG’s advocacy efforts, there is now a new focus in government agriculture departments to dealing with supply disparities.  “Independent grocers are in a number of communities in this country where there are no chains or other grocers.  So if those independents are not being fairly supplied, then that means Canadians in those communities are not being treated fairly and it becomes an issue of food security.”


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