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Consumers remain the cornerstone during times of uncertainty: CEO panel

Industry executives discuss adapting the customer experience and a post-pandemic world during Canadian Grocer’s virtual Thought Leadership conference

Though this has been a year filled with unprecedented disruptions and uncertainty for Canada's grocery industry, one thing remains: consumers are the cornerstone of all strategic decision-making.

The COVID-19 crisis has changed consumer behaviour and grocers have pivoted and moved more nimbly than ever before to keep up with shifts in demand. An increase in at-home cooking and baking, an increase in online grocery shopping and heightened health and safety concerns are some of the lifestyle and shopping habits that have taken hold with consumers over the last 10 months.

But will these changes stick? And what can grocers do to maintain these habits post pandemic?

Recognizing that family dinners are "critically important" and providing customers with quick and easy meal ideas, recipes, prepared food options, and tips to ease meal preparation are where some of the opportunities lie for grocers to stay connected to consumers, said Save-On-Foods president Darrell Jones during Canadian Grocer's virtual Thought Leadership conference held Monday.

"A lot of this has to do with how you take care of customers when they walk in the doors and see what their needs are and their wants are," said Jones, who was joined by Empire CEO Michael Medline and Metro CEO Eric La Flèche for a panel discussion. "I think if we can do that and do it well in this time; you can get those customers to come back to your place as a trusted place to shop."

La Flèche echoed Jones's sentiments, predicted that at-home eating habits are here for the foreseeable as the pandemic continues and customers remain vigilant, and outlined a few areas in which grocers could win.

"It's up to us as an industry to seize the opportunity--it's great store conditions, it's a great online experience, and in-stores it will be more emphasis on clean, people are judging us by that," said La Flèche.

And in addition to a great online experience and health and safety protocols, La Flèche said there's an opportunity to provide customers with good value, not only through price promotions, but by offering healthy meal solutions as well. "Good execution will allow us to seize the opportunity," he said. "We’ve been lucky, it’s up to us to keep it."

Pre pandemic, grocers were focused on innovations and elevating stores with restaurants, wine bars and cooking classes. So what happens to the in-store experience now that consumers are doing in-and-out shops?

"It looks different," said Medline. Health and safety will continue to impact consumers' attitudes, even after the pandemic, with many of the safety protocols remaining in place, he said. He added that the No. 1 question being asked right now in brand and consumer studies is, "Am I safe in this store?"

But post pandemic, there will more personalization and a greater use of data analytics, said Medline.

The e-grocery market has grown exponentially since the start of the pandemic last March, and Save-On-Foods, Empire and Metro have all increased investment in this area as a result.

For Empire's Sobeys it was the early launch of its automated Voila service, for Metro was expanding its delivery and click-and-collect service to markets in Ontario and Quebec, and Save-On-Foods has plans to add 90 delivery vans to its fleet and introduce an in-store, automated pick system to one of its stores next year.

"The road on the e-commerce side will be long and I’m sure filled with potholes as we proceed along the way," said Jones. "But the important thing is we're on the road and we're doing it as quick and as good as we can for our customers."

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