It seemed like eons ago when supermarkets looked apocalyptic: empty shelves, lines snaking around the parking lot, shoppers with carts full of toilet paper and dried beans. A trip to the grocer might not be as nerve-wracking now compared to April, but things are far from being back to pre-COVID times.

The grocery industry has been taking note of how we’ve been shopping in the past months and keeping track of how our buying patterns have shifted: fewer trips, bigger purchases, more veggies and frozen foods and of course, more online shopping. If any industry wants to survive the pandemic, it has to observe what the customer wants and quickly pivot.

“We’ve noticed that shopping trends in their infancy were turbocharged, such as meal kits and online shopping,” said Joseph Longo, VP e-commerce and real estate at the family-owned Longo’s supermarket chain. In the early months of the pandemic, Longo says site traffic went up by 1,100 per cent. The numbers have gone down since, but he says the number of clicks the site gets now is still higher than before.

Longo adds that since April, customers were testing out more complex recipes at home. In particular, baking, as we all remember the great yeast and flour shortage this past spring. Other popular items included coffee, hand sanitizer and soap while floral displays and in-store prepared meals like pizza and burgers saw an initial dip in sales. Shoppers are also being more economical by opting for the store’s private brands.

Tina Lee, CEO of T&T Supermarket, says that there are two parts to what supermarkets noticed: what happened between March and May, and between June and August. The former period had shoppers stock up for two-week supplies and basics such as rice and oil.

The latter saw people being tired of cooking from pantry staples, she says, as sales of tropical fruits and live seafood went up at T&T. More people spending time at home during the summer also meant higher than usual sales on items for the grill. Sales of cakes have also gone up as people stayed home to celebrate birthdays and holidays. Lee says there’s also been an increase in non-Asian customers coming in, eager to cook with ingredients they’re unfamiliar with.
“People live their life through food now since there’s no travel. The supermarket is the one place of joy outside of the house. You’re doing something productive, but you also feel some happiness with food,” she said.

Being a Chinese grocer had its advantages and disadvantages throughout the year, adds Lee. As news of COVID-19 came out of China in late 2019, Lee was already holding meetings with staff on the possibility of having to wear face masks and do temperature checks in January 2020.

“Being Chinese gave us an advantage in knowing what to do because we tapped into what people were already doing overseas,” she said, adding that non-medical face masks, sanitizers and face shields continue to be big sellers. “But at the same time, back in January, public health was saying that masks weren’t effective. It was like swimming upstream.”

She also noticed two waves of stockpiling at her stores: first from Chinese consumers aware of what was already happening in East Asia and then weeks later from the rest of Canadians in March when shutdown orders were given by governments.

Despite the stores having stocked up on PPE early on, rising anti-Chinese sentiment resulted in T&T being swept up in rumours of being an unsafe space. “We went from no one wanting to go to an Asian supermarket to being a place where everyone wanted to shop,” she said. “We’re now delivering to downtown Toronto, even live seafood, as people are expanding their cooking repertoire. I’m gearing up for an awesome Christmas.”

Supermarkets are in the midst of recalibrating, says Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy and senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. He predicts some processed products might disappear from the shelves as more shoppers opt for fresh ingredients because they’re cooking more.
“People are buying fresh because they’re cooking at home and don’t need as much preprocessed foods. I can tell you that Kraft, Heinz, Procter and Gamble, Unilever, they know they’ll be serving fewer products. Ragu announced its exit from Canada a few weeks ago,” Charlebois said.

For example, back in April when pasta was a hot commodity, Ontario-based Italpasta announced it was going down from making 63 shapes to just its six most popular ones to meet demand.

Frozen foods and pantry staples such as beans, dry and canned goods will continue to be popular, Charlebois says, and grocers could be keeping the prices on those items low in order to draw more shoppers in.

Overall, Charlebois says not to expect many good deals popping up in the near future as traditional supermarkets now face more competition from online retailers, as well as farmer groups, processors and even restaurants now selling groceries directly to consumers.

As for meats, the buying limits have since been lifted, but Charlebois says the plant-based movement continues to gain momentum with sales of dairy alternatives continuing to go up from previous years. This has been bolstered by beef being more expensive this year.

“We are going through an economic downturn so I would suggest there is a growing number of people with a tighter budget than six months ago. The economics of the meat counter are going to be challenging,” Charlebois said.

On the vegetable side, Michelle Broom, president of the Ontario Produce Marketing Association, says that a combination of panic buying and reliance on imported produce in March and April led to supermarkets being unable to keep up with the demand. One particular crop that had its challenges was asparagus, as a labour shortage to harvest the springtime crop resulted from the pandemic.

“There was a real shift to what we call longer shelf-life items like root vegetables, broccoli and cauliflower because people were only going out once every week or two weeks,” she said. “There’s still some of that, but over the summer, standard salad items like tomatoes and greens have really picked up. One vegetable that continued to be super popular is the sweet potato, even throughout the summer. It’s usually fall when people show interest.”

As the province continued to reopen over the past few months, Longo says his company’s supermarkets have reintroduced more prepared food offerings as takeout becomes popular again, though its hot and cold bars remain closed as the province hasn’t allowed self-serve buffet-style dining to resume operations.

“We’re starting to see shopping patterns go back to normal, but current trends still see shoppers as being more cautious: larger shopping trips to sustain people for one or two weeks and we’ve seen fewer family outings, it’s just one member of the family going shopping,” Longo said. Fewer people browse the aisles now. They have a list (or give it to a proxy shopper through services such as Instacart), get what they need and leave.

This, along with concerns about close-contact and cross-contamination, are why fewer supermarkets have been handing out samples. This will make food manufacturers rethink how they introduce new products, says David Soberman, professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “More than 90 per cent of the products you’ve been buying have been around for years,” he said. “More than 80 per cent of new products ultimately fail, but if you come up with a successful one, you can make a lot of money. Sampling is a big factor in their success.”

With many supermarkets not handing out cut-up samples of new granola bars, for example, Soberman expects more snack-sized bars (think Halloween-sized
treats) that make it easier to hand out samples and minimize direct contact with the food.

By: Karon Liu, Toronto Star

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