A man leaves a Loblaws store in Toronto on Thursday, May 3, 2018.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Grocers transforming themselves to adapt to shifting consumer demands

Canadian grocers doubled down on transforming themselves into destinations for time-strapped shoppers this year.

Canadian grocers doubled down on transforming themselves into destinations for time-strapped shoppers this year, ramping up delivery options, acquiring meal kit companies and adding in-store eateries.

Shifting consumer demands and tech titan Amazon’s recent acquisition of Whole Foods Market are pressuring grocers to evolve, yet experts say it’s only the beginning of a transformation in how Canadians shop for food.

In the near future, consumers will order online on autopilot; shop at smaller markets bustling with experiences; and embrace in-store technology that eases the hassles of shopping.

“Fundamentally, grocery stores are still planned and built and managed and even measured from a productivity standpoint in the same way they were in 1917,” said Doug Stephens, founder of Retail Prophet, an advisory firm.

That year, Clarence Saunders filed for a U.S. patent for “store equipment or furniture and a system for arranging” it to allow shoppers to grab what they wanted rather than be served from behind a counter, according to the patent application. His first such store, the original Piggly Wiggly, opened the previous year in Memphis, Tenn.

“And yet, as we all know, everything else around us has changed dramatically as a consequence of technology,” Stephens said.

“So, I believe that we really and truly are in for a revolution.”

Canadians feel increasingly comfortable ordering online. In September, retail e-commerce sales accounted for $1.4 billion or 2.8 per cent of total retail trade, according to Statistic Canada’s most recent figures. That’s a 16.9 per cent year-over-year increase.

That will grow even more as Canada continues to lag its southern neighbour in online sales, said Sylvain Perrier, CEO of North Carolina-based Mercatus, which helps grocers better use technology.

He anticipates a two to three per cent growth in online grocery sales over the medium term.

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Canadians will start to overcome the fear of having a stranger select their fresh food — a barrier that’s hampered the growth of e-commerce in grocery — more broadly, Perrier said. That will come as the country’s grocers get better at having good quality produce on hand.

Consumers are also creatures of habit, said Stephens, with about half of their purchases being the same each time they visit the grocery store. Shoppers will likely start purchasing these types of routine items — like laundry detergent or oatmeal — online instead.

With the increasing coverage of the internet of things, interconnected appliances will one day place those orders for their human owners, he said.

Those creations would be an extension of already existing smart refrigerators — ones that can show residents what’s in their fridge and prompt them to order certain items via an embedded screen, among other capabilities.

Some auto-order products already exist. Amazon’s dash buttons, which first required a human tap, now monitor supply levels in certain items and automatically reorder when the product, like printer ink, runs low.

“Fifty per cent of the things we’re buying will just come to us,” Stephens said.

With more food stuffs ordered online, the centre aisles in supermarkets will begin to vanish, resulting in smaller stores that mostly sell fresh goods. These markets will strive to become destinations for shoppers, offering experiences to draw in consumers, Stephens said.

That trend is already taking shape with the rise of so-called grocerants, where stores offer dining options that, depending on the store, may include sushi, full-service bars and freshly cooked seafood selected from freezers in stores.

Stephens expects to see more nutritionists and nutritional information in supermarkets to help shoppers tailor purchases to their health conditions, as well as more chefs demonstrating how to cook specific foods or dishes.

Technology in grocery stores will become more advanced and widespread. Electronic labels, for example, could automatically change an item’s price based on demand or competition, Stephens said.

Some technology, though, will likely go the way of the Dodo bird. Handheld scanners, already tested by the likes of Walmart and Loblaw, likely won’t survive, he predicts.

These contraptions relegate a task to the consumer rather than create a frictionless shopping experience, he said, like that offered by Amazon Go stores.

Amazon launched a check-out free concept in Seattle several years ago. Consumers scan an app when they enter and the technology charges their account for whatever they leave with to eliminate line ups, cashiers and self-checkouts.

While the model has now grown to eight locations in Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco — with two more slated to open in the near future — it’s unlikely to become widespread in Canada any time soon, Perrier said.

Three major players — Loblaw Companies Ltd., Metro Inc. and Empire — control the grocery landscape in the country, he said.

“So any investment that is too risky, that may cause any of those three to falter or to kind of slip up could result in some significant loss and the gain in traction by any one of the other two,” said Perrier.

Still, grocers seem keen to develop their in-store technology.

The goal of any technological addition is to “delight customers” and make them feel good about being in the company’s stores rather than reduce labour costs, said Michael Vels, chief financial officer for Empire Co. Ltd., in a recent conference call with analysts.

“The really significant benefit here is improving our sales,” he said.

As grocers navigate their way into the future, data becomes more important.

Loblaw, which earlier this year merged two loyalty programs into one, uses that trove of consumer information to personalize marketing offers. That tactic can increase how much shoppers buy — what’s known as their basket size — and is why grocers value having their own loyalty programs or partnering with third-party systems, Perrier said.

“It’s really to take that data to the next level and secure their future.”

Also important is a company’s ability to accumulate data in real time, parse it and deploy against it, said Stephens.

In the U.S., one grocery chain was able to significantly reduce its average checkout line up time, for example, by using data to determine how many cashiers to deploy at any given moment.

“Data is becoming a distinct competitive advantage.”

Companies in this story: (TSX:L, TSX:MRU, TSX:EMP.A)

Aleksandra Sagan, The Canadian Press

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