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Walmart, Costco favourite grocers among students: Study

Budget-conscious students increasingly forced to weigh food costs against rent, tuition
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Canada’s university and college students cited Walmart and Costco as their go-to grocery chains in a new study by Solutions Research Group, although the research also detected some regional differences.

IGA is the leading chain in its traditional stronghold of Quebec, for example, cited by 25% of respondents as their leading choice, while Walmart leads in Ontario (21%), and Costco leads in Western Canada, with 19% of respondents citing it as their favourite store.

Atlantic Canada-based Sobeys was the leading choice in that market, cited by 25% of respondents.

SRG president and research director Kaan Yigit says that the choice of grocery banner tends to be determined by a combination of “who has the best deals,” as well as location/convenience.

READ: Gen Z, millennials get hard lessons from the economy

The latter is particularly true for college and university students, many of whom don’t have a car and would therefore default to a store near their campus or residence. That made Costco a surprising choice, he added, since its Canadian stores tend to be situated in suburban locations where a car is necessary for access.

The effect of rising food costs is also having a marked effect on students’ diets, says Yigit. Students are facing “unprecedented” economic challenges, with 57% saying they have less money to spend than compared to two years ago.

In the verbatims that accompanied the data, concern about food security, rising grocery prices, and being forced to sacrifice healthy eating, were commonly cited. Multiple respondents cited juggling rent with tuition and associated costs, such as textbooks, as a concern, particularly in an inflationary environment where the cost of groceries has surged over the past year.

READ: Millennial, gen Z grocery shopping habits change as cost of living increases: Study

“I pay an average of $200 just for groceries once or more per week. It’s absolutely crazy expensive,” said one respondent. “As a full-time student, I’m not working much so it makes it even harder to enjoy my life or even go out for dinner with friends.”

"Grocery prices are going up, [so I’m] trying to choose what I should and shouldn't buy,” added another.

“Food security is a big issue here,” says Yigit. “Anecdotally, we also hear more about fridges being empty, and students substituting the cheapest food possible to get by.” One of the main effects of spiralling food costs, he says, is people choosing more frozen options.

Yigit says there are several tactics that grocery banners can employ to endear themselves to students, such as implementing student discount programs and immediate loyalty rewards, and perhaps even by partnering with post-secondary institutions on exclusive discounts, pop-ups offering staple food items at lower prices.

Another potential tactic is creating app alerts for staple grocery items. “I also think there may be some educational elements in helping students shop more effectively, plan meals for their week, and reduce food waste [to] make their money go further,” he says.

Yet the study also found that convenience often wins out when it comes to students’ food choices, with 22% saying they use Uber Eats weekly, followed by DoorDash at 13%, and SkipTheDishes at 11%.

Quick-service restaurant chains like Tim Hortons (cited by 23% of respondents), McDonalds (22%) and Starbucks (14%) also tend to be favourite destinations for students.

The study also asked students to list their favourite personal care and beauty brands, with DoveSephoraCeraveL’Oreal and Aveeno the most commonly cited. Female-focused products dominated the list, with Yigit citing the slightly more female skew of the post-secondary school population.

The findings are based on interviews with 2,931 people attending college or university in every region of the country in the spring and early summer. Canada currently has about 2.3 million post-secondary school students.

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