While pandemic woes threaten to continue playing the role of Grinch for the upcoming holidays, there are reasons for grocery retailers to feel festive this year. Though normalcy and a return to pre-pandemic times still eludes us, consumers will have enough confidence to resume some traditions, like holiday gatherings—even though they may look a little different than before. That bodes well for putting some cheer back into the holidays following the less-than-robust 2020 winter holiday season.
According to Kathy Perrotta, vice-president, market strategy and understanding, Ipsos, “celebratory consumption and events” for that all-important quarter were down last year by 34% compared to 2019. “People still celebrated,” she says, “but there weren’t those lead-up events and parties we normally see before the holidays. While sales this year won’t be at 2020 levels, they will be dependent on the environment we’re in at that point in time.”
The pandemic and COVID-19 infection rates will be the wild card for holiday 2021. As case numbers climb into the fall, there’s a nervousness about the future. Perrotta expects consumers will find a middle ground by welcoming smaller numbers of guests, and perhaps devise safer ways to gather and celebrate.
What else can grocers expect for the holidays? Here’s a look at some key trends impacting this year’s festive season.
A RETURN TO TRADITION
Last year was an atypical holiday season. Turkey sales took a dive, while top-tier cuts of beef and seafood did well for grocery retailers. For 2021, things aren’t expected to be as foul for fowl. “We are expecting a huge demand since people will be entertaining again,” says Cynthia Beretta, co-owner of Beretta Farms in King City, Ont. “We began our turkey sales this year at the end of August. In 2020, we sold very few turkeys. People were apprehensive.”
She’s also confident that hams and larger bone-in cuts of beef, like prime rib, will sell well this year as shoppers fully embrace the “support local” movement. Beretta Farms, which works with more than 100 farms and ranchers across the country, is also launching bone broth, a very on-trend offering touted for its many health benefits. And to promote holiday sales of its hormone- and antibiotic-free beef, chicken and pork products, the producer will focus on digital advertising and social media.
DESIRE TO EAT HEALTHIER
With health top-of-mind, some consumers are re-evaluating their meat consumption. An Angus Reid survey conducted in 2020 revealed 43% of Canadians indicated an openness to including more plant-based foods in their diets.
That shift in attitude has led to success for Vancouver’s Larry’s Market, a vegetarian grocery store that opened two years ago. Owner Ryan Dennis has seen strong support from vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters as well. For the holidays, Larry’s will expand its lineup of heat-and-serve entrees made with organic ingredients, adding a cauliflower jerk Wellington. “Many people have vegans and vegetarians in their families and they want something special and delicious for their holiday dinners, too,” he says. He’ll also launch “vegcuterie” trays to capitalize on the super-hot charcuterie trend, but swap in plant-based meat and cheese. Plant-based desserts, too, will be big. The grocer will be adding plant-based Nanaimo bars to its roster of baked goods, beautifully packaged for gift giving. “We have found that when people can’t get together over the holidays, they like to send their loved ones a little something.” To build store traffic over the holidays, Larry’s will host special events every Friday and Saturday until Christmas. It will promote non-alcoholic beverages— booze-free ciders, beer flights and premium cocktails—that its customers can serve at home. “Everybody drank a lot during COVID,” explains Dennis. “We’re providing an option to people who are sober-curious. It’s also a great way to encourage trial of unfamiliar products.”
CHEERS TO YOU!
While not all grocery stores are licensed to sell beer and wine in Canada, those that do will find some new and returning SKUs. On the beer front, Cowbell Brewing Co., located in Blythe, Ont., will introduce a seasonal pack featuring three core brands plus three seasonal products, including a Sugar Plum Sour.
To support grocery store sales, Tyeler Walker, director of sales, says the brewer will be doing end aisle promotions and will work with grocery partners for placement in flyers around the holidays, especially December, Cowbell’s busiest month. Social media campaigns will also broaden exposure. “The grocery channel is going to be the next big player in the brewing industry,” he says.
Low-and no-alcohol beers continue to show strength, thanks to rising demand from millennials and older gen Zs. Last year, Budweiser Canada introduced Budweiser Zero to market in response to consumer demand; and Neal Brothers, best known for its snack foods, brought three lagers (regular, lime and grapefruit) to market with 0.45% alcohol. Premier Brands has a solid roster of alcohol-free beer, too, with strong performers like Paulaner, Schneider Weisse and DAB Ultimate, Europe’s first all-natural, low calorie and low-carb beer.
Consumers who may be missing holiday travel can take a sip of the world through wines from Corby Spirit & Wine. “From Australia, Spain and New Zealand, you’ll be sure to find a high-quality wine at accessible price points,” says Michelle Finn, the company’s regional trade marketing manager. To promote sales, Corby will provide $3 discounts from the end of November to the beginning of January for its Ontario grocery top-sellers, including the popular Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc and Campo Viejo, the top-selling Spanish wine brand family. Jacob’s Creek, the leading Australian brand in Canada, will offer larger 1.5L formats.
Cocktails continue to trend strongly, making it an ideal time to offer unique mixers. Fever Tree’s new Sparkling Pink Grapefruit will please those who love Paloma cocktails, while Genuine Tea’s handcrafted sparkling iced teas hit shelves at Loblaws in September—suitable for sipping straight or to blend into cocktails, with potential health benefits coming from functional ingredients like turmeric, ginger and elderberry.
Finding the sweet spot for package and serving sizes may be challenging for the holidays. On one hand, people are still prone to pantry loading, which is up by 30%, says Perrotta. “It’s a case of consumers having FOLO [Fear of Lockdown], not FOMO [Fear of Missing Out],” she says. “They’ll want to have food on hand to be prepared for entertaining.” On the other hand, there will be strong demand for multi-packs with individual servings for greater flexibility.
It’s something that M&M Food Market has noted. “A trend we’re seeing is smaller, manageable portion sizes that are more convenient to serve and allow hosts to spend more time with family and guests,” explains chef Michael Gray, the company’s director of product development and quality assurance. “At the same time, we’re also offering traditional items, but with new flavour profiles; something we call comfort with a twist.” With that in mind, shareable holiday appetizers will be launched in early November, including a crispy chicken poblano firecracker, cream Cheese wonton with spicy Thai sauce for dipping and a decadent lobster puff, featuring sustainable North Atlantic lobster with herbs and spices wrapped in a butter puff pastry.
For mains, M&M will offer a marinated lemon and thyme Canadian pork loin, a jalapeno and honey stuffed pork tenderloin, and turkey stuffed pasta shells with a seasoned crumb and cheese topping. On the vegetarian side, it has rustic root vegetable gratin with celery root, sweet potato and turnip in a creamy cheese sauce.
Its new dessert lineup has unapologetically decadent items: a standalone 4-inch classic tiramisu and two individual miniature cakes available in packages of six—a triple chocolate mousse cake and a mini apple crisp cheesecake. “Everything is perfect for sharing or individual indulgence,” says Gray.
During the pandemic, shoppers have gotten used to stocking up on frozen foods. “The pandemic has changed shopping and product preferences and we know that will influence behaviour during the holiday season and beyond,” says Andy O’Brien, CEO, M&M Food Market. “We saw Canadians shifting to smaller stores where operational standards made them feel safer. Lastly, as much as we love to see customers in our stores, we’ve seen a significant jump in e-commerce sales and that’s only going to grow. The holidays are always busy, but we expect these factors will translate into an even busier 2021 season for us.”
The challenges of the pandemic often had frazzled consumers relying on quick-to-prepare foods, and convenience became an even greater expectation than before. “Convenience is a point of entry needed now,” Perrotta says. In pre-pandemic days, convenience often meant picking up dinner at a restaurant on the way home from work. Now, consumers are looking more to grocers for easy meals, especially since many Canadians are still working from home; and this behaviour is likely to extend into holiday entertaining.
O’Brien says M&M prides itself in being able to make celebrating more convenient. “Rather than fussing and stressing in a hot kitchen, we offer people the opportunity to spend more time with loved ones and share a meal they can feel proud to serve.”
Part of that equation also means having staff who can offer consumers suggestions. M&M has trained in-store meal advisors who can provide a variety of product suggestions, details on ingredients, pairings and preparation tips. At Oliva Market, a specialty grocery store in Burford, Ont., product knowledge is shared in person and online. Along with heat-and-serve meals, Oliva offers a wide array of gourmet products, from olive oils to artisan coffees and upscale snacks.
But while unique products are great, they’re not so appealing if consumers don’t know how to use them. “That’s why we’ve introduced online cooking videos,” says Dan Santos, Oliva’s vice-president, operations. “They’ve become very popular and are helping to drive sales. After videos air, we get a swarm of people coming to pick up the ingredients needed to recreate the dish.” For the holidays, the retailer will also help customers by making available charcuterie kits containing everything they need.
CHOICES FOR ALL DIETARY NEEDS
Good holiday hosts understand the importance of being prepared to accommodate guests’ dietary requirements, including gluten-free options. Carbonaut, a Silver Hills Bakery brand that launched in early 2021, will soon introduce gluten-free bagels in three flavours (plain, cinnamon raisin and everything), ideal for a holiday brunch, along with gluten-free pizza crusts. All are keto-certified, too. Keto-diet followers can also try the brand’s recently introduced gluten-free cinnamon raisin bread, featuring only one gram of net carbs per slice. And for those wanting to make gluten-free turkey stuffing, Little Northern Bakehouse breads (also from Silver Hills Bakery) offer the taste and texture of traditional breads, minus the gluten.
“More and more people are looking to make healthy food choices and are seeking out products made with whole foods and that feature a clean ingredient list,” says Jodie Douglas, marketing director at B.C.-based Silver Hills. For holiday promotions, the company will continue to work with brand partners and registered dietitians to share holiday meal solutions and recipes. On social media channels, it will promote seasonal content to help prepare shoppers for the holidays and offer discount pricing to retailers.
When it comes to desserts, Sweets from the Earth will be launching vegan, tree nut- and peanut-free holiday festive four-pack cupcakes featuring seasonal flavours, like peppermint, beginning on November 15. Its lineup of fall and holiday selections also includes pumpkin pie and apple, peach or blueberry crumble pies.
And for consumers preparing charcuterie boards, consider having better-for-you cracker options available. “What’s great about Eve’s Crackers is that they can be enjoyed by every guest, no matter their dietary restrictions,” says founder and co-partner Eve Laird. “Our crackers are gluten-free, vegan, and keto-friendly.” The brand’s Chili Pepper Pumpkin Seed crackers are very on-trend, she adds, courtesy of their spicy kick.
And as a healthier alternative to pop, new bubbly beverage brand Chrisoda goes the functional beverages route by incorporating organic apple cider vinegar, natural mushroom extract, cold- pressed juice and low levels of organic cane sugar. These premium drinks are available in raspberry, pear ginger and vanilla rhubarb.
And finally, don’t forget to offer consumers tasty ways to chase away a winter chill as they embark on winter activities. Stock a range of hot chocolate products, like Nesquik’s revamped line of chocolate syrups and powders with cleaner ingredients and 100% sustainably sourced cocoa. And for something a little more unique, Vermont-based Sillycow Farms features 13 flavours of hot chocolate mixes (including festive varieties such as ginger snap and peppermint twist) packaged in old-fashioned milk bottles. For inspiration, place complementary items like marshmallows and thermoses nearby.
This article appeared in Canadian Grocer's September/October 2021 issue.