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09/23/2021

E-grocery is booming. Here's what the big players are doing

The pandemic changed the way consumers shopped for groceries, and the country's largest chains responded

The pandemic was responsible for a pronounced shift in how Canadians shopped for groceries. And while opinion seems divided about whether the rise in online grocery was merely a COVID-induced blip or a signifier of a permanent change in consumer shopping habits, many of the country’s largest chains have been making significant investments in their e-commerce capabilities over the past 18 months.

Here's an overview of who's doing what:

Loblaws

Loblaw Companies Limited has invested heavily in its e-commerce operations over the past 18 months to meet COVID-related demand, with chairman and president Galen G. Weston saying during a Q2 earnings call that after throwing labour at the challenge in the early-going, the company is now looking to improve its efficiency in the space.

In the chaotic early days of the pandemic, Loblaw accelerated the opening of a micro fulfillment centre (MFC) in Toronto that uses an automated system to pick and pack grocery orders for its PC Express system. With the launch, PC Express was able to open up additional availability for orders by increasing the pick rate to 500+ per hour.

Loblaw also hired thousands of personal shoppers, added thousands of slots for pickup every week, and introduced technology to increase capacity across the country.

Additionally, Loblaw continues to add third-party sellers to its two-year-old online shopping service, Loblaw Marketplace. The company expects to have 300,000 products listed across a range of categories by year’s end, with an emphasis on non-food brands.

 

Longo's

Now part of the Empire group of banners, Longo’s recently announced it was combining its Grocery Gateway and Longos.com operations into a single online entity under Longos.com.

Launched in 2004, Grocery Gateway was a pioneer in the online grocery space, serving up to 70,000 customers from a 150,000 square-foot fulfillment centre in Vaughan, Ont. (Longo's said some elements of Grocery Gateway brand, such as its trucks, would continue to exist).

In addition to a new look, the new e-commerce site offers a single sign-in for all of Longo’s products and services including its Thank You Rewards loyalty program, Loft cooking classes, and online pick-up/delivery orders. VP of e-commerce and real estate Joseph Longo said the move created similar experiences across the company’s entire ecosystem, while unlocking additional value for customers.

Metro

Vice-president of e-commerce and digital strategy Christine Bédard said last year that online grocery had reached levels of popularity the company hadn’t expected to see for two to three years.

The country’s third-largest grocery chain reported a 19% year-over-year increase in online sales during the third quarter of fiscal 2021 (after growing nearly 300% in 2020), and has pledged to continue growing its e-commerce capabilities.

During the quarter, the Quebec grocer opened a Montreal store solely dedicated to filling online orders, and opened up more delivery slots. Metro also introduced home delivery to Ottawa and expanded its partnership with delivery service Cornershop to include its Adonis banner.

And, Metro CEO Eric La Flèche said its click-and-collect offering would grow from 45 to 170 stores by the end of September.

Safeway

The Empire banner brought its online service Voilà to Alberta earlier this year, with the launch of curbside pick-up at three stores in Calgary and a single store in Edmonton. The company plans to add additional stores over the coming months.

The company is also building a state-of-the-art automated customer fulfillment centre in Calgary that will enable Voilà to offer home delivery service in the province by 2023.

Save-On Foods

Save-On-Foods president Darrell Jones told Canadian Grocer this year that the company has added e-commerce capabilities—click-and-collect, delivery or both—in every one of its stores. “That’s really important to us,” he said.

To streamline the online process, the company is adding automation to an existing warehouse in Vancouver and building a new automated warehouse. It also plans to explore automated picking inside the store (with humans picking fresh grocery).

“[A]utomation is going to become a bigger part of that reality,” said Jones. “It’s going to continue to grow and be a big part of our business moving forward.”

Sobeys

Accelerated usage of online grocery shopping during the pandemic prompted parent company Empire to speed up the launch of its Voilà service. And it paid off. Empire’s e-commerce business grew 241% in Q2 2020.

The company has a state-of-the-art automated fulfillment centre in Vaughan, Ont. to handle orders for the service, using technology from the British company Ocado Group to pick grocery orders with minimal human handling.

Voilà launched in Ontario in 2020, and parent company Empire has since brought curbside pick-up to Nova Scotia.

Walmart Canada

Earlier this year, the big-box discount retailer announced it was building its first fully-automated fulfillment centre in Scarborough, Ont. The 22,000-sq.-ft. space will automate online grocery picking and dispensing with picking speeds up to six times faster than manual store picking.

It will also feature automated kiosks that serve as vending machines for online grocery orders and can serve up to five customers at a time. 

More recently, Walmart Canada announced it was offering more than 20,000 items from more than 175 third-party grocery sellers on Walmart.ca. New additions include the plant-based seller Plant X, the beverage brand Mr. Case, and sustainable snack-food brand Three Farmers Foods.

Walmart said the expansion of its grocery offering has been rapid, with the number of sellers on the Walmart Canada Marketplace doubling between January and June. It clearly addresses a customer need, with Walmart noting that online grocery orders are six times greater than in 2020, with an increased size in orders.

Walmart also said 99% of its Walmart Supercentres would provide online grocery shopping by the end of the year.