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02/16/2012

Notes from the show

Walking the aisles of Grocery Innovations Canada, I found lots of tasty treats.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, the only remaining pure grocery-driven association in Canada, celebrated its 49th annual convention in style two months ago, with attendance up and a terrific trade show. Registered delegates to Grocery Innovations Canada increased seven per cent, to nearly 6,000 over last year, and there were more than 500 exhibitors, including a number of first-timers. The conference and trade show have become a must for independent grocers, and this year representatives of corporate retailers such as Sobeys, Loblaw and Walmart were also walking the aisles. That was good to see because the show is open to all, not just CFIG members.

Grocery Innovations Canada is a truly homegrown exhibition. This year a number of specialty sections were featured, including ethnic, wellness and a first-time exhibitors pavilion. One of the most interesting new products was Mini Oliva from Alfa Cappuccino, a tiny bulb of olive oil and balsamic vinegar you can carry in your pocket or lunch box. Simply tear off the end and you have 14 ml of dressing to squeeze onto your salad.

Another product that caught my eye was Yogalicious, a frozen treat made from probiotic vanilla iced kefir, a fermented milk product similar to yogurt but with three times the probiotics. It is also suitable for people with lactose intolerance. And I very much enjoyed snacking on a Magnum ice cream bar from Unilever. This decadent treat is a big hit in Europe and was recently introduced to Canada.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada had a large booth you could visit from all sides, which featured some of the world’s best cheeses, all made in Canada, of course. And Labrador Preserves had wonderful jams and jellies from berries hand-picked in the barrens of Labrador. I was surprised to find my old friend Neville Kirchmann, former president of Coca-Cola Canada, at a booth for his new venture, Interzone Brands, which offers a line of tasty, organic juices under the brand Treehugger.

It was pleasant to see many old friends, most of them independent grocers, walking the aisles. Some are franchise owners, others are fully independent. In conversations with them it was clear that business is more competitive than ever, but, for the most part, they are doing well. Some franchisees said they are feeling pinched by their wholesalers, but they are hanging tough. Other independents expressed the need for a third, independent wholesaler in Ontario, because choice in that province is limited to buying from either Sobeys or Loblaws (through National Grocers).

That is not a new issue. It originally arose with the departure of Lanzarotta Wholesale a number of years ago. But according to many the matter has reached a stage where more choice is needed more than ever. It causes one to wonder whether Metro, Co-op Atlantic or Associated Grocers would consider setting up wholesale operations in Ontario. Only time will tell.

At the gala dinner that concluded the convention and trade show, CFIG president John Scott made some announcements for next year’s events, which will mark the association’s 50th anniversary. The included a change in dates for the show (to Oct. 1–2, from the third week in October); a move back to the downtown Metro Toronto Convention Centre after several years near the airport; a new tagline for the anniversary: “Bold Past, Brilliant Future”; and a book on the Top 50 independent retailers to be launched in January. “There is more news to come,” says Scott.

Since the founding of CFIG in 1962 I have been privileged to know and work with all its presidents: first was Arnold Rands, then Ken Gadd, followed by Tony Wilshaw and now John Scott. I can say unequivocally that the association has grown and improved under each one, to today where it is the premier association for grocers, offering trade shows, education, government relations, opportunities to learn from peers and so much more.

At 50, CFIG will still have its best years to come.