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Sobeys' Marc Poulin, and more from Grocery Innovations Canada

A look at some of the speakers, events and new products at the show

Whether selling fresh bananas online or selling frozen bananas in-store, succeeding in the competitive Canadian grocery market today requires heaping scoops of differentiation.

That appeared to be the message coming out of Grocery Innovations Canada this year. The industry trade show and conference ran this past Monday and Tuesday in Toronto, drawing independent grocers and some chain buyers alike.

The event, hosted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, featured plenty of new products on the show floor and new ideas for retailers to take back to their stores from the conference portion of the event.

VIEW: The Top 10 innovative products at GIC

Among the speakers was Marc Poulin. The Sobeys CEO spoke about the evolution of Sobeys’ conventional grocery format and his company’s recent hiring of British chef Jamie Oliver as Sobeys' pitchman.

Poulin stressed that Oliver won’t merely be a marketing face for Sobeys. Instead the grocery chain intends to use his expertise to promote cooking and healthy foods.

Sobeys plans to make several changes to its stores, including a new store look that will roll out in Western Canada and Ontario in November. Other changes include adding more global and local products and sustainably sourced goods.

Audience members were interested in learning about Sobeys' intentions with its recently acquired Canada Safeway chain in Western Canada.

Asked whether he intended to take down the Safeway store banner and replace it with Sobeys, Poulin said that the Safeway banner would stay up for now but that the company would eventually “move to one brand.”

POLL RESULTS: Should Sobeys keep the Safeway store banner?

He added that a decision on whether that brand would be Safeway or Sobeys had not been made.

Two panel discussion at GIC, one on fresh and another about online grocery’s opportunities, managed to incorporate a shopping-cart staple: the banana.

On the fresh panel, Will Willemsen, owner of Sunripe, a produce-oriented grocery store in London, Ont., said he has had great success selling frozen sliced bananas as part of a “smoothie bunker” that contains fresh ingredients for making smoothies.

After a spirited discussion about the future of online grocery on the other panel, Stephen Tallevi, general manager of Grocery Gateway in Toronto, offered would-be e-grocers one salient insight.

“Everyone who orders online orders bananas. So get that right off the bat," he said.

Tallevi, the co-founder of Grocery Gateway, now owned by Longo’s, appeared on a panel with several e-commerce insiders, including Tom Furphy, a former AmazonFresh vice-president.

Furphy noted that supermarket chains can’t expect to compete head-to-head with AmazonFresh, the company's online grocery division, which is currently operating only in Seattle and Los Angeles but which is expected to expand.

The online giant makes considerable amounts of its money through services and other activities and isn’t necessarily interested in making a profit on all its retail sales. Stores, of course, have to make money that way, he said.

Furphy added that Amazon “doesn’t focus on selling products, it focuses on helping people buy better,” which he noted was a subtle but important difference in thinking from traditional retail strategy.

READ: An interview with a pioneer in online grocery

Another panelist, Chris Coborn, detailed his supermarket chain's efforts to sell online.

Coborns, an independent grocer headquartered in Minnesota with stores in six states, purchased a failing Minneapolis e-grocer in 2008 called Simon Delivers and rebranded it as CobornsDelivers.

Coborn, the company’s president and CEO, said the addition of online delivery has given his company insight into shopping habits, entry into the Minneapolis market (where Coborns did not have any stores) and also some strong sales.

A typical online order, he noted, is worth $142 and customers only take four minutes online to spend that amount.

When a Walmart and Costco opened up near one of his stores, Coborn said that his online sales in the vicinity did not suffer at all.

Meanwhile, on the industry fresh panel, Ron Lemaire, president of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, told retailers that they should have their own “fresh identity” to differentiate themselves from other stores.

The show, held at Toronto's Metro Convention Centre, was the first for Tom Barlow as president of CFIG.

The former Coca-Cola executive took over the independent grocers' association in June after longtime president John Scott retired.

READ: Just ahead of Grocery Innovations, an interview with Tom Barlow

In a speech, Barlow told his independent grocery members and suppliers that "we have a great opportunity here at CFIG" and laid out two key objectives: to grow the organization and protect the memberships' interests.

Scott, who led CFIG for more than 20 years, was given the association's prestigious Spirit of the Independent award during a presentation on Monday.

GIC also managed to draw some star power this year in the form of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. She was at the show on Monday to open the "Choose Ontario" pavilion and try her hand at bagging groceries during the best bagger competition. (According to reports, she was actually quite good at it.)

The winner of that event was Kayla Ball of Colemans in St. John's, Nfld., who beat 27 participants from grocery stores across the country to take the best bagger title.

Contestants were judged on four criteria: speed, weight distribution, bag content and style.

Of course, GIC's real focus was on the show floor where exhibitors tried to excite store buyers about their latest products.

One booth that drew considerable attention was the Garlic Box, a garlic grower from Hensall, Ont. The company's newest product was a 300-gram package of peeled and quick-frozen garlic cloves.

The product offers home cooks a convenient way to get garlic quickly; merely take a clove out of the freezer whenever you need it for cooking, roasting or chopping or mashing, said Jackie Rowe, the Garlic Box's owner.

Another product that hoped to draw on consumer's need for convenience was Country Comfort Foods' poutine. Poutine, a trendy Quebecois dish consisting of cheese curds, gravy and fries, has been popping up in food trucks and food service. The Colborne, Ont. company's product comes frozen, only needing to be microwaved for three minutes. A brand new product, not yet launched, but shown at the show was Poutine Popperz, a bite-sized crispy potato ball filled with gravy and diced cheese.

VIEW: Photos from Grocery Innovations Canada

Rowe said she was pleased with the activity in her booth and that the interest in the product was "more than we had anticipated."

Another unique product on the show floor was Coconut Sauce by Organika. The company, which last year unveiled a coconut vinegar, is positioning its coconut sauce as a replacement for soy sauce.

The coconut sauce contains 360 mg of sodium per tablespoon, said Organika's new business development manager, Helena Brown. Regular soy sauces contain 575 to 960 mg of sodium, she pointed out.

Huer Foods from Langley, B.C., unveiled a line of licorice confections with pop–literally: Dr. Pepper Licorice, Orange Crush Licorice, Grape Crush Licorice and Hawaiian Punch Licorice.

Made by Kenny's Candy out of the United States, the four licorices are made using the real soda pop ingredients and were recently launched in the U.S. They are expected to hit Canadian stores in the new year and come in 142-gram bags.

Along with a host of new ethnic food offerings, there was a definite trend toward marrying east and west in food flavours and formats. Take for instance Wafu Japanese mayos. Distributed by ID Foods, the mayos come in three flavours (wasabi, sesame and spicy) and could be used on everything from sandwiches to sushi, said Mari Toyoda of ID Foods. As well, the company also launched Haiku green tea noodles, egg noodles flavoured with green tea extract. Another interested flavour combination was Italy's Monari Federzoni's ketchup with balsamic vinegar and mustard with balsamic vinegar. Both can be used as finishing or dipping sauces for meat and vegetables.

With the launch of stevia in Canada earlier this year, the natural sweetener showed up in several booths. The Crossmark booth featured Pure Via Stevia Sweetener while Advantage Sales and Marketing was promoting Cargill's Truvia sweetener.

READ: Stevia is finally here. Sweet sales to follow?

Stevia also showed up as a sweetener in a line of new protein teas called Blu-dot. The drinks, which are lightly sweetened and available in flavours such as Honey Lemon Green Tea and Apple Pear White Tea, also come in a line sweetened with organic cane juice.

Major manufacturers were also showcasing their latest products. Weston was promoting its Veggie Bread (made with vegetables like peppers and tomatoes) while Campbell's provided tastes of its Pub-Inspired Chunky soups.

The line, launched in August in 540 ml cans, include Alehouse Shepherd's Pie, Meatball Bustin' Sausage Rigatone and Smokie Bacon Cheese Slider.

TV ads for the line were just starting to air, a representative at the Campbell booth noted.

Gluten-free (or gluten low) products were also highly visible at the show. Full of Beans gluten free baking mixes was one of the Country Grocer, Peter Cavin's top picks. The mixes are made from the coloured beans grown on the Bornholm, Ont. farm of Kim Dietrich, owner of the company. The beans are turned into bean flour and products range from gluten-free baking mixes to bean blend products such as Italian bean and pasta mix.

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