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Canada's grocery leaders predict the "new normal"

In part one of a two-part series, Canadian Grocer asks grocery industry leaders to share insights from the past 13 months and predictions for the post-COVID era

Though it’s starting to feel like brighter days are coming sooner rather than later, there’s no denying this has been a loooong pandemic. And these 13 months (and counting) have been extraordinary for the grocery industry on many levels.

Canadian Grocer reached out to a handful of grocery industry leaders and asked them to tell us what they’ve learned over the course of the pandemic, and what “normal” will look like in the months and maybe years ahead. (Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

Horacio Barbeito

President and CEO, Walmart Canada


Lessons learned: Since the onset of the pandemic, Walmart’s strategic priorities across the globe and here in Canada have been to:

  • focus on safety, support our associates and customers;
  • give back to our communities through our charity partners;
  • manage the urgent without losing sight of the important; and
  • make strategic progress by investing in transforming all aspects of our business.

We’ve learned a lot over the past 14 months, including the resiliency of our customers and of our associates. While the pandemic continues to test our ability to pivot quickly, adapt, improvise and overcome, I’ve never felt more confident that we can handle whatever comes our way.

We also recognized that we had to balance responding to immediate challenges with making progress on longer-term priorities. We listened to customers and responded to changing behaviours by making strategic investments in innovation and technology, transforming our business and making the shopping experience simpler, faster and more convenient both in our stores and through We’re continuing to accelerate our digital transformation, launching new technologies and services – in some cases, years ahead of plan.

The new normal: One important “new normal” is a focus on physical, mental, emotional and social health. We acted quickly to make wellbeing a priority across our company.

For our associates, we have ignited an ongoing conversation around wellbeing and invested significantly to roll-out new resources like no-cost access to tele-health, support through mandated quarantines and expanded sick leaves, new training and wellbeing programs like “Thrive” (a global platform to build healthy habits and reduce stress) and “Me” days (an additional day off to be used however associates would like).

Throughout the pandemic and into the new normal, our 100,000 associates will continue to work every day to ensure we are our customers’ best and first stop—whenever and however they choose to shop with us.

Darrell Jones

President, Save-On Foods


Lessons learned: This pandemic has reminded us of the important role our stores and our teams play in our communities. What’s really been brought to the forefront is the resilience of our team members who through this lengthy pandemic have reported to work every single day, ready to serve our customers.

Things have never changed so quickly as they have in the last year and the Save-On-Foods team has really learned to focus on the things that remain within our control, like ensuring we provide our customers with what they want and need, in a safe, and friendly environment.

The new normal: Fortunately, our e-commerce platform was in play for years before the pandemic hit, and we are extremely thankful for that. More than ever, our customers are telling us that they want more access to both delivery and click-and-collect options. We don’t see the e-commerce business slowing down and post-pandemic, we anticipate ongoing growth in this area of our business. We recognize the shopper expectation has changed, and we are prepared to change with them.

We are extremely proud to have a solid supply chain and strong relationships with our suppliers, warehouses, and business partners that we know for sure can see us through any crisis. This pandemic has, without a doubt, prepared us to better anticipate and handle future challenges that may come our way and has shown us that the new normal involves everyone doing their part—our company, team members, customers and suppliers and business partners working together to ensure Canadians have access to the food, medicines and services they want and need.

Digs Dorfman

Founder and co-owner The Sweet Potato


Lessons learned: We’ve learned a lot from the pandemic, and I’m not sure I can boil it down to a quick, all-encompassing answer, but I will say that we’ve been shocked by just how easy it’s been for many of our senior staff to work from home.

I’ve been working from home since last March, and my business partner recently told me that I’ve never been quite so productive as I have been since the start of COVID, and I tend to agree with him.

I do miss the in-person interactions with staff, and a part of me still misses my usual neurotic checking of the kale display to make sure it’s fresh and crisp, but I’m able to do more this way and I know some others in our organization are as well. I never would have believed that without living through it.

The new normal: I think the new normal will also involve more remote work. As property values in Toronto continue to soar, it just makes sense for people to live further away, and also for businesses to use less space for offices. I think this is probably less true in the grocery world than it will be in some other industries, but I envision a serious decline in office space over the next decade.

On top of that, I think online grocery ordering and delivery is going to be a mainstay of life going forward. With more and more people working remotely, it only makes sense that purveyors of both products and services will increasingly need to extend their reach. The trade-off is simple: if you pay less for rent/property, you’ll be able to budget more towards delivery.

Giancarlo Trimarchi

CFO and controller, Vince’s Market


Lessons learned: Our company, industry and customers are resilient and able to adapt quickly.

The new normal: Our generation has never experienced the recovery from such a long-lasting disruption. I don’t think a new normal will be realized for quite a while, and what it looks like would simply be a guess at this point.

The same principles that helped us through the pandemic will serve us through the recovery. It will be necessary to remain flexible and adapt quickly through the recovery period to ensure our business is poised to meet and exceed customer expectations, as they change again once there is a real opening of the economy back to pre-pandemic levels.

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