How are Canadians coping with rising cost of groceries?: Study

Three in four Canadians have changed how they buy food in the last 12 months to deal with food inflation
A girl with a basket takes frozen foods from the supermarket's refrigerator. The girl chooses goods in the store. Shopping in the supermarket.

As the cost of groceries hits eye-watering highs, money-saving measures are on fire. 

That’s a key takeaway from a new study by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, in partnership with Caddle, examined how Canadian consumers are dealing with higher prices at grocery stores

The study of 5,000 Canadians found that in the last year, 33.7% of respondents have used more loyalty program points to pay for their groceries, 32.1% read weekly flyers more often, and nearly 24% are using more coupons at the grocery store. 

Canadians are also trying to cultivate a green thumb to save money on food: 15.5% consumers have started growing their own food in the last year. Ontario has the highest percentage of budding gardeners (17.4)%, followed by B.C. (16.2%), the Atlantic (15.2%), Quebec (13.7%) and the Prairies (13.1%). 

While 6.2% of Canadians use hydroponics at home to grow food, 4.5% claim they have livestock at home now, and didn’t 12 months ago.

“First of all, I think the media has done a pretty good job informing the public in terms of how to save money and Canadians are paying attention,” says Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab. “Canadians are also domesticating themselves and doing things at home that are helping.”

The survey also looked at how Canadians are changing their shopping behaviours. While 8% of consumers have changed their primary grocery store where they buy most of their food, 12.9% of Canadians have started to visit more than one store in the last 12 months. 

Just over 19% of Canadians have visited discount stores in the last 12 months, and 11.5% have visited dollar stores more often to buy food. Some are going straight to the source: 8% of consumers are visiting farmers markets more often, and 7.1% have visited roadside stands to buy directly from farmers in the last year.

Some other money-saving tactics Canadians are using are: trying to waste less food (40.6%) and buying private-label products (21%). 

The researchers also measured a “darker side” of compromises consumers are making to save money. Almost 24% of Canadians are now cutting back on the amount of food they buy due to higher food inflation. 

“While three in four Canadians have actually changed their ways of shopping, there is also a sense of desperation. Some Canadians are struggling,” says Charlebois. “Of the 24% cutting back on the amount of food they buy, almost 70% are women, so you have to think of children and single-parent families being impacted. It’s tough for a growing number of people.” 

Dietary changes have been made by 8.2% just to save money. While 7.1% are skipping meals now, 6.6% of Canadians are paying for their groceries with a credit card without knowing when they will be able to pay it back. 

Charlebois has one suggestion for Canadian grocery retailers: a temporary price freeze. He notes around a dozen retailers globally have made this move in the past few months. For example, from June to August, discount retailer Lidl dropped prices on more than 100 items in all of its stores on the East Coast of the U.S. And in August, French supermarket chain Carrefour launched a 100-day price freeze for the 100 everyday items. 

In Charlebois’ view, giving struggling consumers a break will show Canadians grocers have empathy, and it would be good PR. “It’s an easy strategy,” says Charlebois. “To freeze prices for a few months, all you need is some vertical coordination working with your suppliers. Grocers tend to do that anyways with loss leaders and different promotions.”

He adds that such a move would go a long way for Canadian grocers, who are being hammered on social media over claims of price gouging or “greedflation,” even though those accusations are baseless. 

“And so, I think it’s time to perhaps allow consumers to know that grocers have a heart,” says Charlebois. “Honestly, I don’t know why they haven’t done it already. It’s been going on for months in Europe and other places. And not one Canadian grocer has done it yet. I’m puzzled by that.”

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