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6 Ways Canadian Grocery Retail Was Forever Changed by the Pandemic

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By Devin Partida

When the pandemic struck, virtually every industry had to adapt. As an essential part of daily life, grocery stores didn’t have to close their doors. But they did have to change to facilitate safe shopping. Some of these changes will have lasting effects on Canadian food retail.

As more people receive vaccinations and COVID-19 fades, some regulations and practices will go with it. While grocery stores won’t emphasize social distancing and mask enforcement in the future, they’ll maintain some practices. Some adaptations of the COVID era will long outlast the pandemic itself.

Here are six of the most significant ways the pandemic has forever changed Canadian grocery retail.

1. Online Ordering

Perhaps the most significant lasting change to come to Canadian grocery stores is online shopping. Unlike other retail sectors, the grocery industry hadn’t fully accepted e-commerce before the pandemic. Now, the industry has embraced it, and it’s too convenient a tool to forsake post-COVID-19.

In Q4 2020, Sobeys reported a 241% rise in e-commerce sales compared to 2019. As people grow more comfortable shopping in-person again, these sales will decline, but they won’t disappear. Now that many people are used to employing these services, they’ll continue to do so.

Grocery delivery or curbside pickup is convenient and efficient on top of being safe. Consumers with busy schedules will keep using online services for these advantages. This demand will fuel Canadian grocery chains to sustain their e-commerce services well into the future.

2. Robotics Adoption

Many industries relied on robotics before the pandemic, but not grocery stores. With capacity restrictions and higher cleanliness requirements, though, major food retailers turned to automation for help. Now that these stores have already invested in robotics and seen its potential, they’ll continue to use it.

Robots can clean aisles while workers focus on other tasks, like helping customers find what they need. Loblaw has taken a different approach by deploying autonomous delivery vehicles to automate grocery deliveries. No matter the specifics, robots help grocery stores expand what their workforce can do at once.

3. Fewer Trips but Higher Spending

Consumers reported going to stores less often throughout the pandemic, yet grocery spending didn’t fall. Generally speaking, people started visiting the grocery store less frequently but would buy more while there. This method of shopping can save customers money in the long run, and now that they know that, grocery stores can capitalize on it.

Many retail companies across the globe already embraced this business model before the pandemic. Wholesale retailers, for example, can offer reduced shipping rates because of their high volume. Now that similar buying habits have made their way into the grocery industry, stores can do the same.

Wholesale or bulk grocery delivery will become increasingly common in the post-COVID world. As more people realize how this can save them money, more will buy this way.

4. Touch-Free Checkout

Shared high-touch surfaces fell out of fashion amid the pandemic due to health concerns. Even when COVID-19 fades, people may still have lingering fears about how easily germs can spread in traditional checkout processes. Consequently, the Canadian grocery industry will continue to add more touch-free checkout options.

Touch-free solutions like paying with smartphone apps or an Amazon Go-style system are convenient as well as safe. Tech-loving, digital-native consumers will also appreciate the novelty of these options. Touch-free checkout won’t likely replace traditional methods for a while, but they will become increasingly popular.

5. Supply Chain Resiliency

COVID-19 revealed how fragile the food supply chain is. Canada’s reliance on large, consolidated suppliers, for example, led to substantial disruptions amid the pandemic. The nation’s beef processing capacity fell by roughly 40% when COVID-19 struck just two Alberta beef-packing centres.

Post-COVID grocery supply chains will look different. Companies will source products from a more distributed network to prevent future disruptions. Similarly, more grocery stores will turn to technology to enable real-time tracking, providing more visibility.

These changes will come with high initial investments. As a result, prices could rise for a while after grocery stores first start changing their supply chains. After some time, though, the resiliency and flexibility benefits will make up for this investment.

6. Declining Peak Hours

Many sectors embraced remote work amid the pandemic and will continue to rely on it afterward. While grocery store workers can’t work remotely, the industry will still experience lingering changes from the work-from-home revolution. Most notably, times that were once peak grocery shopping hours will start to decline as consumers have more flexible schedules.

Before COVID-19, grocery stores, like many retailers, saw significant traffic hikes on weekends when most people were free to shop. Now that more workers have more flexibility, they’ll shop throughout the workweek to avoid crowds. This more evenly spread traffic will help grocery workers help customers without rushing or feeling stressed.

COVID-19 Will Have Lasting Effects on the Grocery Industry

The pandemic has been remarkably disruptive for Canadian grocery retailers, but not all of these changes are negative. Grocery stores will emerge stronger from COVID-19, having learned some crucial lessons about efficiency, resiliency, and customer service.

Devin Partida is a writer and blogger, as well as the Editor-in-Chief of ReHack.com

Post-COVID grocery stores will be more convenient for customers and more profitable for owners. While these changes were uneasy at first, the industry will be better off in the long run because of them.

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