Canadians Are Now Buying Less Food. Now What for Grocery Retailers? [Op-Ed]


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“The data is clear. Canadians are buying less food, and that trend won’t end soon.”

The release of retail data by Statistics Canada last week has provided valuable insights into the dynamic nature of food retailing in Canada. Contrary to initial assumptions, the data reveals intriguing fluctuations in Canadian food and beverage retail sales per capita since 2017, challenging prevailing expectations and necessitating a closer examination of the underlying factors at play.

The figures indicate that in March 2017, sales per capita stood at $258.41, experiencing a marginal decline to $257.05 in March 2018 and a further decrease to $256.61 in March 2019. However, a notable shift occurred in March 2020, with sales per capita surging to $309.19. This significant increase can be attributed to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdown measures, which led to changes in consumer behaviour and a reversal of the preceding downward trend in food retail sales.

Post-2020, the data shows a resumption of the downward trajectory in food retail sales. In March 2021, sales per capita dropped to $277.03, indicating a decline from the previous year. This decline can be attributed to the lingering impact of the pandemic, which disrupted various industries, including the retail sector. Furthermore, in March 2022, sales per capita experienced a further decrease to $257.55, signifying a continuation of the downward trend. The most recent available data from March 2023 reveals a further decline to $237.20, marking the lowest point in recent history. These figures suggest that Canadians are spending less on food at grocery stores, despite facing higher food prices.

But here is another piece of valuable data. Recent NIQ data indicates a 2% decline in food sales by volume in Canada in the last year, further emphasizing the reduction in food expenditures among Canadians. This trend raises several considerations. One possibility is that Canadians are increasingly relying on alternative food sources, such as ordering meals from restaurants or utilizing unconventional channels to fulfill their food needs. However, given recent menu prices, this explanation seems unlikely. Another possibility is that individuals are opting for lower-cost alternatives and seeking out independent stores that cater specifically to the needs and preferences of immigrant communities. Private labels or store brands are and will increasingly become more popular. This observation suggests a potential increase in the number of food businesses serving these communities compared to previous periods, indicating a shift away from mainstream food sources.

Furthermore, the data suggests that Canadians may be wasting less food, particularly with the rise in remote work arrangements. The consumption of leftovers and repurposing of food could contribute to reduced food waste, although this is purely speculative. The occurrence of “shrinkflation”, whereby product sizes are reduced without a corresponding decrease in prices, may also play a role in reducing waste. However, the impact of these factors on the overall decline in food retail sales requires further investigation.

Another concerning possibility raised by the data is that Canadians may be consuming less food or relying on food banks more frequently. Reports of long lines at food banks and increased usage across the country indicate a potential rise in food insecurity. While it is unlikely that increased gardening activities alone could explain such a significant shift in the data, the underlying reasons for the increased reliance on food banks is troubling nonetheless.

Bottom line, if people think grocers are riding the inflation wave with their food sales, they should think again. It’s just not happening. Loblaw, for example, saw its food sales go up 3.1% in Q1, which is significantly below our food inflation rate. Grocers are treading water with food sales, at best. Record profits are being recorded, but it’s not because of food sales.

Canadians are buying less food and, chances are, that trend is likely to continue for a while. Just like in early 80s, consumers are programmed to seek deals, all the time. This is what the market is doing to all of us right now. We are all becoming better bargain hunters, for those of us lucky enough to afford the food we need to eat.

Sylvain Charlebois
Sylvain Charlebois
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Senior Director of the Agri-Foods Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Also at Dalhousie, he is Professor in food distribution and policy in the Faculty of Agriculture. His current research interest lies in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety, and has published four books and many peer-reviewed journal articles in several publications. His research has been featured in a number of newspapers, including The Economist, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, the Globe & Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star.


  1. Another reason that we are buying less groceries is that we are not entertaining as much…or at all.
    We haven’t entertained in our homes the same as we have in the pre-pandemic. Also, the cost of groceries is prohibitive to allow entertaining.
    Thank you.

    • WHO CARES About the uber rich owners of grocery store??

      Were hungry.

      The economy has gone to crap under Danielle Smith.

  2. So if we are buying less food and record profits are happening then the stores are charging too much for the food are they not

  3. Its definitely that people are relying on food banks so much more now. Food insecurity is at an all time high especially with the older population on small fixed incomes. Its insane how bad this is getting I only make 860.00 a month and my rent is 700. So I have 160.00 left to eat for the month and I just can’t do it and a single person gets relatively nothing at the food bank because they are so depleted in their stock with such high demand. Considering that we are a relatively wealthy country this is absolutely disgusting.

  4. The cost of groceries is very inflated by greedy grocery chains. They have used excuse from the supply chain due to covid…its over, knock it off.. The they tried to blame farmers. Farmers have stepped up and have stated increases have come but are minimal vs what the stores have been charging and that they are not the problem. The other excuae we hear is shipping costs due to fuel expense. Let’s do the simple math. Try one item that has increased.. butter.. Went from $3.97 lbs to now $6.97. Full costs have gone up 50% so using that math a tractor trailer can hold approx 50,000 lbs of butter. $2000 fill up a couple years ago works out to 4 cents of a point of butter directly related to full cost and now $3000 equals 6 cents per pound. How can butter increase 175% in less than 2 years. I would love for someone in the industry to start crunching the numbers and show the rest of us how we aren’t being screwed because as it is now, I like millions of others, are feeling the greed and have no other choice but to reduce our purchases and started vegetable gardens to off set what we are not purchasing from stores..

    • Everything has got furiously expensive, but butter is a bit of an outlier. Or dairy in general. In Canada we have the Canadian Dairy Commission (colloquially known as the Milk Mafia) that enforces supply management by milk quotas. They have increased the farm gate milk price twice in 2022 and again in 2023. Thereby increasing prices of all dairy products. So on top of normal inflation and greedy grocery chains, we also have a government institution that raises the prices even more.

  5. I know loooots of people in my city, myself included, that are just eating less because they can’t afford it. When you can barely afford rent every month, you’ve got to choose between nourishment and shelter. You’ve got to have a roof over your head, and the ability to do your job, but you can skip a few lunches and dinners, the hunger goes away eventually.

    Isn’t that screwed up?

  6. Another factor could be that people are more conscious of the quality of their food, and also prefer to support local such as Farmer’s markets, local businesses, and specialty food stores. As one example, why does Loblaws import produce when we have an abundant supply in Canada? It would be a win win all around, less transportion charges, fresher local product, all while supporting Canadian farmers. Loblaws used to be my ‘go to’ for many years, but now I avoid shopping there. I do not support a company that operates on greed. They are not authentic, trustworthy, and do not seem to be community builders, or have any concern for the environment. ( but spew out a lot of greenwashing). Aside from their lack of integrity, product wise, they have slowly phased out well loved brands to make space for their ‘private brands’, which I after trying a few products, find the quality to be inferior.
    I will not shop at a store that doesn’t support Canadian business (remember what happened with French’s ketchup) Not to mention, the store in my neighborhood hood is not that old, but has gone downhill significantly since it opened. It’s messy, frequently out of stock of items, not well signed with pricing, and staff are unfriendly and not well trained. They’ve provided so many reasons to shop elsewhere

  7. I originally started fasting to lose weight… now I have integrated it as a regular part of my life because I quickly noticed the impact on grocery bills it was having, and those grocery prices just keep skyrocketing. Then again, I feel blessed NOT having children to feed…

    • Intermittent fasting is great, a friend of mine lowered his high blood pressure doing it and now also has a 6-pack. I’m integrating it into my routine to get the same for poolside visits this summer.


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