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Canada's favourite grocers revealed

Farm Boy ranked tops by Canadian consumers but Walmart is best at price

What if Canadians could give the grocery stores they shopped at a grade? Which ones would get an A?

A new survey by Calgary-based Field Agent Canada has done exactly that, with some surprising results.

Canada’s favourite grocer, it turns out, is a chain many people across the country have never shopped at, let alone heard of: Farm Boy, the 19-store fresh food chain based in Ottawa.

Farm Boy was the only grocer to receive an A grade in the cross-country survey of consumers, who were asked to grade only the stores they shop at.

The survey found that Canada’s second favorite grocer is Toronto’s Longo’s (B+), followed by the Loblaws banner (B) and Save-on-Foods (B). Rounding out the Top 5 is Your Independent Grocer, the Loblaw indie banner. It also scored a B.

Other supermarket executives “should have their eye on” these stores, said Jeff Doucette, general manager of Field Agent. He noted that several of these stores are expanding and entering new markets.

Farm Boy, for instance, has expanded out of its Ottawa base in recent years, adding stores in Ontario cities such as London, Kitchener and Kingston, with more locations in the works.

Save-on-Foods only operates in B.C. and Alberta now, but will start to pop up in Saskatchewan and Manitoba next year as part of a plan by its owner, Overwaitea Food Group, to move across Western Canada.

Regionally, Farm Boy was the favourite supermarket in Ontario, Provigo in Quebec, and Sobeys in Atlantic Canada. Save-on-Foods was tops in B.C., Costco in Alberta, and Safeway in Manitoba and Saskatchewan together.

Field Agent’s “Canada’s Favourite Supermarkets 2015” study polled 974 consumers across the country about everything from the shopping experience to which retailers they thought did the best job in key departments such as produce, deli and meat, as well as on price and private label.

“Other retailers can learn from the grocers who consumers believe are doing best in different parts of the store,” Doucette told Canadian Grocer on Tuesday at the Grocery Innovations Canada show in Toronto, where he presented the results for the first time.

For instance, Costco was rated as having the best meat department in four of the six regions in the country (Alberta, Manitoba/Saskatchewan, Quebec and Atlantic Canada). Costco’s overall grade for meat was A-, well ahead of the average score (C+) supermarkets received for that category.

Yet, as Doucette pointed out, Costco’s meat department is not as elaborate and does not offer as much selection as many conventional supermarkets. But clearly Costco “is doing something right,” he said.

“Otherwise, why are consumers spending that $29 on meat in Costco… rather than spending it in your stores?” he said during his presentation.

T&T Supermarkets, meanwhile, scored highest nationally on seafood (B+). The average grade for seafood was a C+. “How we did seafood 20 years ago is probably not how we should be doing it today," said Doucette. "It’s not the same customer."

In addition to Farm Boy, several retailers scored well across the various fresh categories, including Zehrs, Longo’s, Fortino’s and Thrifty Foods.

Loblaw store banners, meanwhile, took the entire Top 5 in the private label category (Zehrs was No.1) and four of five in HABA (Walmart was the only non-Loblaw banner).

Doucette pointed out that the stores ranked highest in his survey were not necessarily the ones where customers spend most of their grocery budget.

Indeed, while conventional supermarkets were tops in categories related to fresh food and the shopping experience, none cracked the Top 5 on price. Here, Walmart ranked highest (A-), followed by Real Canadian Superstore (A-), Maxi (A-), No Frills (A-) and Costco (B+).

Overall, Canadians don’t seem all that enamoured by most supermarket prices. The average grade was only a C+.

The takeaway, perhaps, Doucette noted, is that it’s difficult for a store to be both the quality leader and the price leader.

While the grocers listed in the study were mainly chains and their banners, several one-, two- and three-store independents rated highly, said Doucette. Among them: Pete’s in Halifax, Marche PA in Montreal, Highland Farms in Toronto and Chongo’s Market in Calgary.

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