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From curbside pickup to home delivery: COVID-19 is shifting how Canadians get groceries

The future of grocery shopping in the COVID-19 pandemic
WATCH ABOVE: From online orders, to curbside pickup and home delivery - the way many people are buying groceries has changed drastically in a short period of time. Sarah Ryan explores whether the shift is permanent or only temporary.

Grocery shopping is a necessity of life for many – but the pandemic is changing the experience for many.

According to consulting company McKinsey – 17 per cent of Canadians surveyed at the start of May had ordered curbside pickup for the very first time during the pandemic, while 10 per cent had tried out grocery delivery for the first time.

Global News: Tonia Gloweski
Global News: Tonia Gloweski. Global News: Tonia Gloweski

The survey also noted Canadians are spending less in all categories, except for two: in-home entertainment and groceries.

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It means grocery providers have been busier than ever, including Organic Box in Edmonton. Their orders have tripled during the pandemic. Their model allows people to shop from the safety of home.

“People go online, they can go through our whole catalog, they choose what they want, pick it, submit it and then it arrives, right on their doorstep,” explained spokesperson Sarah Hoyles.

To keep up, the company has had to adjust on the fly.

“We’ve doubled our staff to help with all of the orders,” Hoyles said.

Organic Box has also had to source more orders.

“We’ve always supported local farmers but now we’ve needed more fruits and more veggies from them,” she said.

COVID-19 is shifting how Canadians get groceries
COVID-19 is shifting how Canadians get groceries

James Thomson, a retail insider and partner with Buy Box Experts, said it’s integral companies are flexible during the pandemic, especially in the realm of convenience for consumers.

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“E-commerce has seen a huge, huge build of grocery adoption,” Thomson said.

He said with so many people trying online shopping lately, a positive first experience could have a lasting impact on how they shop in the future.

“We recognize that consumers may not necessarily be flocking back into the stores. Many of them are going to continue to buy their products online.”

Thomson noted consumer purchasing is different online than it is in store.

“Brands are not as important. It’s not a question of – do I want to get my Heinz Ketchup, it’s more – I need ketchup, give me whatever brand is available,” he explained.

Thomson said he believes the grocers which will come out on top, are the ones making shopping convenient.

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“The companies that are going to thrive are going to be the ones that have that last mile delivery capability in place.”

READ MORE: Canadians look at new ways to shop for groceries amid COVID-19

That’s exactly what they’re trying to do at The Italian Centre Shop, a popular local grocer with locations in Edmonton and Calgary.

President Teresa Spinelli said the company knew it needed to make changes early on.

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“When the restaurants all closed down, we had all this staff and didn’t want to lay anyone off,” she explained.

Instead, the Italian Centre launched home delivery services on March 19th, as well as curbside pickup.

“People weren’t comfortable going to the stores,” Spinelli said.

Overnight, cafe employees started picking orders – and business has been up across the board.

Curbside pickups have been holding staying steady, Spinelli said, estimating her team fills about 200 orders a day between the various locations.

READ MORE: Social media buzz amid COVID-19 leads rush for local carbs

Home delivery is slowing though, they’re getting about 45 orders a day there.

“I’m hoping the delivery can stay,” Spinelli said, adding she’d like to continue the service for seniors with mobility issues, or people with weakened immune systems.

“Curbside, we’ll see how it goes.”

Spinelli is hopeful customers will feel safe returning to the stores soon though.

“The Italian Centre is very much a gathering place. It’s a very different feel than walking into a big box store,” she explained.

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“They come here because they’re really connected to our team, they see our friends here. That’s what I think makes us different.”

Italian Centre Shop
The grand opening of the Calgary Italian Centre Shop took place on July 2, 2015. Italian Centre Shop

Like the Italian Centre Shop, which also serves restaurants, Gordon Food Service was significantly impacted by the restaurant restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus.

“When the pandemic lockdown happened and restaurants were forced to close or not allowed to have any in house guests, our volume took a significant drop,” director of sales Joel Marsh said.

As consumers worried about potential food shortages, the company had a warehouse full of products, but nobody to sell it to. Necessity pushed the 120-year-old company to try something new.

“We’ve decided to offer our products, which are normally available to restaurants and institutions, to the general public through our Gordon Express platform,” Marsh said.

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Gordon Express launched about a month ago in Alberta. Customers can shop online and pick up their groceries curbside. It’s also available in Ontario and Quebec.

Recently the company added $15 next-day delivery as well.

The most popular items are typically meats.

“Steaks, chicken, seafood – items that have somewhat been in limited supply in the retail environment,” Marsh explained.

But Gordon Express is carrying a wide array of products, including dry goods, cleaning supplies and produce. The service has been slowly growing and the company is optimistic demand for it will continue post-pandemic.

McKinsey’s recent survey found even though user growth of curbside pickups is through the roof in Canada, up 168 per cent, only 26 per cent of people intend to continue this practice post-pandemic.

Grocery delivery, up 75 per cent, is more likely to remain popular, with 38 per cent of Canadians surveyed stating they plan to have their groceries come to them in the future.

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In a statement, Loblaws, which operates major grocery stores including Real Canadian Superstore and No Frills said its online shopping experience has also increased significantly through the PC Express app and website.

“As the demand grew to levels we didn’t expect for years to come, the business scaled up in order to serve more people, faster, including hiring hundreds of new personal shoppers and adding thousands of slots every week to increase capacity across the country.”

The statement went on to say, “while our PC Express service levels have begun to normalize following the unprecedented spike in use, we believe as consumers return to normal shopping that we’ll continue to see higher demand, as people have become comfortable with the technology and accustomed to the convenience.”

Hometown Hero: Getting groceries to those in need
Hometown Hero: Getting groceries to those in need

At Belmont Sobey’s in Edmonton, owner Jerry MacLachlin said he started offering free curbside pickup in response to consumer demand.

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“We really like to listen to our customer’s needs and stay on top of their asks: one of which was an option that they not have to come into the store.”

He said he’s shifted some employees from departments that had to close into other roles in the store, including picking orders.

“Because of how fast we needed to move, we weren’t able to build an actual website where you would select products and add it to a cart, but we do it by email. There’s a human being on the other end of that email.”

MacLachlin estimates they fill about 60 orders a week and could do more. The service is being offered free of charge.

“Keeping people safe, that’s really the goal.”