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Urban Cowboy: Grocery stores responding to competition, consumer concerns

In this week's Urban Cowboy, Owen Roberts talks about what a fascinating, competitive time it is to be a grocery shopper.
Urban Cowboy is Owen Roberts' weekly look at agriculture and food in Guelph.

Some shoppers will say it’s about time. But from what we saw in a limited sample during an outing on Saturday morning, at least one grocery store is responding to fierce competition that is only going to get more intense, to consumer concerns about rising food prices, and to accusations that kids are being enticed to eat too much junk.

First, rising prices. In October, former University of Guelph researcher Sylvain Charlebois, who stays connected to the university through its food institute, released a survey-based study showing nearly one-quarter of all Canadians were concerned about how they’re going to pay for their groceries.

grocery store - limit signStores often set limits on certain deals. Photo courtesy of Angi Roberts for GuelphToday.

Half of the respondents to his survey said they had changed their shopping habits because of fluctuating prices. Nearly 60 per cent said they’ve looked for deals on groceries and stock up on sale items.

The numbers point to Canadians’ belief that they already pay a lot for food, even though the amount of money we spend on food in this country is among the lowest of any nation in the world.

To me, if you have a family, you are always concerned about how you’re going to pay for groceries, you’re always looking for deals and you’re always stocking up. How else can you get by? I’m surprised the numbers weren’t higher. But, of course, not everyone buying food is doing so for a family.

Canadians' zeal for inexpensive food comes at a time when we and others are also happily paying more for high quality. Across the street from our house, we have one of the best family meat markets I’ve ever seen, Valeriote’s Market. I gladly pay a premium for their amazing products. You likely have our own favourite specialty shop. You don’t shop there daily, but when the occasion calls for the best, it’s your go-to store. Some goes for your local farmers’ market.

Price has given rise to some giants that are relatively new to Guelph. Costco comes to mind, along with the new Walmart. And from what we saw on our Saturday excursion, established chains such as Zehrs are both following suit and trying to one-up price choppers with service, variety and attention to food for health.

grocery store - fruit for kidsZehrs has an impressive commitment to nutrition and the Imperial Road store offers free-fruit-for-kids basket. Photo courtesy of Angi Roberts for GuelphToday.

Zehrs has an impressive commitment to nutrition. It employs 75 registered dietitians throughout southwestern Ontario, and I can only imagine it’s them who are behind the free-fruit-for-kids basket we saw at the Imperial Road store. What a great concept! And while it’s true that in general, fruit is expensive, so are lattes from Starbucks. It’s up to you how you’re going to spend your food dollars, and what kind of nutrition you’re going to get in return.  

grocery story - multi signPhoto courtesy of Angi Roberts for GuelphToday.

At the other end of the spectrum, I was surprised at the way Zehrs has waded into the volume business. On shelves everywhere, and I mean everywhere, was signage advertising volume discounts and teasers that set limits on how many you could buy. Buy two or three at a lower price, and the retailer makes about as much as it did if you bought one at the regular price. But at least you’re buying from them, not someone else.

In the spring, Longos will open a store in Guelph, across from a Food Basics, on the opposite side of the city from Costco and the Imperial Road Zehrs. Longos distinguishes itself with full-service, quality, with a particular emphasis on hot food and salads. But there’s still some overlap with almost all others.

What a fascinating, competitive time to be a grocery shopper. Maybe concerns about meeting grocery costs will be met by this competition. If you don’t find what you’re looking for at the price you want to pay, tell the manager, and see what happens. I sense that it’s a different era of responsibility towards consumers, a message the entire food chain, including farmers, needs to realize. Consumers feel entitled – they’re paying good money for food, and from their perspectives, more all the time, and they feel entitled to the best prices, the safest food, and an explanation of the 5ws and the H about whatever they’re buying.     

Grocery store - Wow what a dealPhoto courtesy of Angi Roberts for GuelphToday.

Stores are catching on. At Zehrs, I saw what looked to be a manager approach a shopper who was scanning the produce section for something, and offer to help. I couldn’t believe it. At one time, you’d practically have to leap onto someone’s back or trip them as they raced by, to get their attention. Those days are gone. And if they’re not, the retailer will be.               

The segmented marketplace adds to the richness of the landscape. Nourish Food Marketing says in a new report that brands pursuing elusive millennial consumers must focus on re-communicating the value - whether social or dietary - of their product. It’s no good to hold out something like “Newman’s Own” dressing anymore . . . a lot of millennials don’t even know who Paul Newman was.

“Younger consumers need to be told how it’s valuable to them, or they’ll simply view it as an artifact of an unexciting past,” says Nourish.

Good point. Food shopping was unexciting in the past. Today, it’s a lot more fun, and worth celebrating.