I sometimes wonder what went through the minds of the dinosaurs that looked up and saw a meteor hurtling towards Earth, which, unbeknownst to them, would cause their extinction. If they had the tools, could they have adapted and prevented themselves from going extinct?
In March 2020, the pandemic seemed like the meteor that was hurtling toward us. Although, thankfully, COVID-19 hasn’t ended life as we know it, its impact will undoubtedly leave a lasting mark.
One mark that will likely last is the shift in where many people work. About a third of Canadian employees aged 15 to 69 worked at home most of the time in January 2021, according to Statistics Canada’s research. This represents a massive leap from 4% in 2016.
Much debate is taking place around whether we’ll see a return that’s close to pre-pandemic norms when it comes to workers going into the office Monday through Friday. In all likelihood, this will no longer be the reality for many. Indeed, technology in the form of Zoom meetings and cloud computing has enabled companies across multiple sectors to not only survive but to thrive, with workforces remaining connected and productive outside of physical offices.
Employees have also taken to this “next normal.” According to Mintel’s research from the United States, 70% of employees see “the benefits of working remotely outweighing the benefits of working on-site.” Furthermore, nearly two-thirds say they are “less likely to consider taking a new job if it did not allow remote work.” In a post-COVID world, many companies will have to allow for flexible work arrangements to attract A-list talent.
This reality will undoubtedly remain a challenge when it comes to eating out. When Mintel surveyed Canadians, half of those who commuted in the year leading to March 2021 said they plan to commute less after the pandemic. Among those who say their commuting habits changed since the beginning of the pandemic, 69% said they are eating out less.
As Canadians’ commuting habits shift, certain businesses face a historic challenge. How to address it?
The first task is to identify how vulnerable any given food-related business is. For instance, does it rely mostly on traffic from offices or from homes? Is the traffic more reliant on the lunch or breakfast dayparts during the week, or dinner when social or family occasions likely play a greater role?
The second consideration: is it easy for shoppers to place orders using intuitive online tools? Not playing in this space is no longer an option. Having to call orders in or line up and wait is an unwelcome barrier in an era of increased competition, and at a time when there’s greater focus on personal safety.
For grocery, specifically, it stands to reason that as retail took share from foodservice during the lockdowns, foodservice will look to win that share back. Retailers that have a focus on home meal replacement or “grocerants” will undoubtedly battle for that share in the “next normal” as new commuting habits lead to a more sustained shift.
While Canadians are eager to support businesses in the food industry, retailers and restaurants alike will need to adjust to a new reality. The good news is, unlike the dinosaurs, we are able to recognize the meteors that hurdle towards us and adapt to their lasting impact.
This column appeared in Canadian Grocer's September/October 2021 issue.