More predictions for the "new normal" from Canada's grocery leaders

In part two 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 (here's part one incase you missed it) 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.)

Headshot of Empire CEO Michael Medline wearing a tie

Michael Medline

President and CEO, Empire Company Limited


Lessons learned: I think we’ve all learned that no one can get through this alone. This experience has reinforced that nothing is a bigger test of your company’s resilience and your values than a crisis.

COVID-19 taught me that anyone can lead in good times, but times of crisis show you what your leaders are truly made of--and I am so proud of all the leaders in our industry (including our competitors)--especially the leaders in our stores and distribution centres. I also continue to be overwhelmed with gratitude for the constant collaboration with our supplier partners to help Canadians keep food on the table.

When your business is turned on its head overnight, your values are one of the few things you can rely on without fail. Our values determined our priorities at the start of the pandemic and have helped us maintain focus. We set three priorities: keep our shelves stocked; keep our customers and teammates safe; and continue supporting our philanthropic causes and charitable partners. I’m so proud of how our team continues to keep a firm grip on these priorities. Our frontline heroes are true champions and I’m so humbled to work with them.

The new normal: As I answer this question, it isn’t certain that a new normal is imminent. I know that many will continue to rely on grocers as the pandemic continues. That means, safety continues to be a big part of our new normal. I hope the new normal includes a significant amount of Canadians vaccinated so we can turn a real, safe corner on this pandemic.

In the immediate future, I hope governments across the country will prioritize our frontline grocery heroes in the vaccine rollout. Grocery retail never thought we should jump the line ahead of healthcare workers, the elderly or the most vulnerable. However, I now think we’ve reached a point in the vaccine rollout when it is appropriate and necessary to prioritize grocery heroes.

Headshot of Gary Sorenson against the backdrop of a grocery store

Gary Sorenson

President and chief operating officer, Georgia Main Food Group


Lessons learned: Over the past year, we have developed a newfound level of respect for our staff and customers in terms of supporting them as they deal with emotional challenges faced each and every day. What we do has a direct impact on their daily lives. We have learned to expect the unexpected and create ways to quickly lead or adapt to changes. Without our dedicated and loyal staff, we would not have experienced our current level of success during these unprecedented times.

The new normal: History has shown that after facing difficult times humans adapt and often return to what is considered near normal. The comfort and familiarity of the past will often be the driving force of peoples' pursuit of a better future. The grocery industry has been at the forefront of change during the pandemic and has made tremendous strides in changing the way it operates in the name of safety protocols and efficiency. We may see many of these changes remain in place for the near future and some will perhaps stay with us forever.

Headshot of Summerhill co-owner Brad McMullen in one of his stores

Brad McMullen

Co-owner, Summerhill Market


Lessons learned: One lesson we learned is how critical we are to the fabric of the communities we serve. It has been very rewarding to see how supportive they have been in keeping our stores safe and respecting and appreciating our frontline staff.

Another lesson learned is quick decision making. Getting ahead of curves, making aggressive decisions with purchasing has been the only way to get through it. In the same respect, we've been reminded of how our relationships with our suppliers are vital. We are truly partners working together and the pandemic brought out the best in those relationships.

The new normal: How the new normal will look is really a fascinating question. I believe there are a lot of smart people and investment dollars that are pushing into this newly defined space. I think there will be a snap back to our life before the pandemic, but many new conveniences and habits won’t be broken.

Grocers have a brand new swath of competitors they haven’t really seen before and will have to quickly adapt to this reality. The new normal will look like the best of what consumers have learned, combined with what we missed most during the pandemic. That may vary from region to region, and I think it will take quite some time to settle into what will be.

Ken Keelor

CEO, Calgary Co-op


Lessons learned: We have learned a great many lessons during this pandemic. Along with the health and safety of our team members, members and community, we have also placed a high emphasis on being:

  • Transparent. It has been important for us to connect directly with our customers to let them know of any changes we have made and any challenges we are facing. We regularly communicate via email, our website, social media and in store. It is important for us to build that trust and let them know that we can be relied upon when they need us the most.
  • Flexible. As this situation unfolds, things can change literally by the hour. We have really learned the importance of being ready to pivot quickly and respond to changing situations.
  • Empathetic. This new world can be frightening. We have learned the importance of listening to our team members and members. We work hard to be there for them and provide them support and compassion. We are truly in this together and we need to take care of each other.

Finally, we must make decisions that reflect compassion for our team members’ and members’ personal situations. Through COVID, we know that means making the work environment as safe as possible for team members and members (with Plexiglass, masks, one-way aisles etc.) and it means listening to our members’ needs, which is why we created seniors hours, sent out over 2,800 care packages to those in need, created our Calgary Co-op Cares program and continue to expand our e-commerce options.

The new normal: We know shopping will continue to look a little different in the future as some of the changes and trends we expect will continue. These include:

  • Bigger baskets, but less trips to the stores
  • More home cooking and baking n
  • Increased focus on private brands
  • Even more focus on locally sourced products

With a challenged economy, our members are more focused than ever on supporting local and helping local businesses and retailers stay afloat. People also want to know where their food comes from and they want to know that it is fresh, high quality and healthy. Our focus will continue to be on local, with over 2,300 local products supported by 180 local producers and their families, e-commerce solutions to ensure we are able to meet the needs of all of our members, and the continued development of our new private brands Cal & Gary’s and Founders & Farmers, which are unique to us and have been developed with our members and community in mind.

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