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Canadians making fewer trips to the grocery store as inflation pinches: RBC report

Restaurant spending remains strong despite a slight decline over the last three months

Canadians are on average making fewer grocery store runs as food inflation persists, but still spending roughly the same amount per trip, according to a report Thursday (March 9) by RBC.

The bank's consumer spending tracker showed the average number of grocery transactions in February was up 8.4% relative to pre-pandemic levels, compared with a roughly 13% bump relative to pre-pandemic levels seen toward the end of November 2022.

"It could very well be people are cognizant of rising prices, and instead of just going and picking up things here and there, they're being more conscious and just making fewer trips to the store,'' RBC economist Carrie Freestone said.

"It's largely a story of people continuing to have to pay more for groceries.''

Grocery prices grew by 11.4% year-over-year in January, despite an overall annual inflation rate of 5.9% for that month, according to the latest data released by Statistics Canada.

Freestone said it could take time for food prices to fall, but it's too soon to predict when that will happen.

"Grocery spending is very much non-discretionary. I think where we're more likely to see the pullback, as the impact of higher rates filters through the economy, is discretionary spending,'' she said.

"When interest rates are really high, food prices are still a lot higher and real wages aren't catching up with inflation. We're going to be in a situation where people have lower disposable income and they have less money left over to spend on discretionary goods.''

The consumer spending report showed discretionary spending held steady through February. Restaurant spending remained strong despite a slight decline over the last three months.

The latest inflation data indicated food purchased from restaurants rose 8.2% in January compared with the same month last year  up half a percentage point from December.

Canadians also continue to book trips despite flight costs rising 28% from pre-pandemic levels, according to RBC. Spending growth on international travel continued to outpace domestic flights.

"This is a unique case, but we're coming out of a pandemic where we have this immense pent up demand,'' Freestone said.

"People are willing to spend a little bit more at bars and restaurants, a little bit more travel, because they missed out on it for so long. It is somewhat unusual that we've seen it hold up for this long, but given the context, it's not surprising to me.''

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