What newcomers need in the grocery aisle

Environics' Migration Nation explains immigrants needs change over time

In the new book Migration Nation, co-authors Kathy Cheng (Environics’ vice-president of cultural markets) and Robin Brown (senior vice-president of consumer insights and cultural markets) contend that Canada’s newcomers go through a number of stages in their immigration journey, from the disorientation of a wholly new culture to the sense of belonging and independence that comes with time and experience.

But at each step, a newcomer’s shopping needs change. While someone ready to explore a new Canadian identity may be ready to tackle Canadian cuisine, the first few days after arrival are marked by a need for both familiar products and easy-to-make meals to ease the transition into the unfamiliar Canadian kitchen.

It’s not only in Canada that tastes are increasingly global; the market environments people experience prior to migration reflect multiple tastes and influences as well. Palates around the world — particularly in cities — are being exposed to a greater diversity of flavours. Newcomers to Canada are increasingly exposed to multinational brands prior to their arrival here. In fact, our research has found that some newcomers from Asia have greater trust in certain Western CPG brands (including Nestlé, Unilever, and Kraft) than does the Canadianborn population.

For CPG brands, it’s important to be aware not only of the tastes newcomers bring with them to Canada, but of the image their brands have outside Canada’s borders. CPG firms can get some easy wins simply by leveraging the equity of brands in the company’s portfolio that already exist overseas.

It is important to remember that, for many migrants from Asia, the very process of shopping and cooking might not have been a big part of their pre-migration life. Domestic servants who perform these tasks are much more common in parts of Asia than in Europe and North America. Immigrants from India in particular are likely to come from an environment where groceries are delivered to the door and prepared by a cook.

Even Asian migrants who didn’t have servants in their countries of origin are more likely than the average North American working-age adult to have had live-in parents or in-laws who helped substantially with groceries and meal preparation. This kind of multi-generational labour-sharing is particularly common in Chinese households. The sudden withdrawal of such support, combined with new products and conventions of shopping, can make the mundane task of buying groceries a very daunting one for newcomers.


Like financial services firms, Canadian food, grocery, and personal care companies have an opportunity to build relationships at the Disorientation stage of settlement. During the Disorientation phase migrants are looking for simplicity and reassurance. When they first arrive, they’re likely to seek basic meal solutions and familiarity. This is no time for sampling the culinary riches of the Canadian mosaic: recent arrivals want to get their families fed, and they have relatively little time, energy, and money to devote to the task. Ideally, a trip to the grocery store during Disorientation will not only yield food, but also a sense of competence and accomplishment: “Life is crazy right now, but this is something basic I can get done for my family—without wasting time or money.”

No Frills is the leading grocery store among South Asian immigrants in Ontario: in a 2013 survey, Environics found that 77% had visited a No Frills location within the previous three months. The store’s ads specifically target South Asian and Chinese newcomers, employing techniques that are well pitched at those in the Disorientation stage of settlement. First, No Frills ads inform newcomers that familiar products like bok choi, atta, and live fish are available in its stores. Second, No Frills consistently reminds shoppers that they’re getting a good deal, with its “Won’t Be Beat” policy guaranteeing the lowest prices.

This approach not only appeals to newcomers’ budget consciousness but also reassures them that they can relax; they don’t need to worry about searching around an unfamiliar landscape to comparison shop. A guarantee of the lowest price is music to the Disoriented migrant’s ears.

No Frills succeeds with newcomers in part by carrying familiar Asian brands. But there’s another path to success as well: helping Disoriented newcomers develop new brand relationships by explicitly linking a product available in Canada to a product they knew back home. Reckitt Benckiser, for example, has targeted South Asian newcomers with the message that its Lysol brand of disinfectant and household cleaner is similar to the trusted Dettol brand popular in South Asia. This approach leverages Dettol’s strength and helps newcomers make one more step toward feeling they’ve gotten their bearings in Canada.


Grocery shopping happens frequently and consistently, with many opportunities to try new products and retailers. A newcomer can test out the mom-and-pop shop around the corner, the big-box discount store, and the ethnic specialty shop—all within a few weeks. This potential for experimentation means that engaging newcomers in the grocery aisle is a different challenge from engaging them in industries where “shopping” is more sporadic—in financial services or telecoms, for instance.

For banks, forging a strong relationship with newcomers when they first arrive often yields significant returns. If a bank can connect with a newly landed migrant and provide her with the basics, it has a good chance of expanding the relationship down the line as the newcomer gains ground financially, requires credit and investment vehicles, wants to save for her children’s education, and so on. The same is true for providing a new arrival with his first mobile phone.

Unless you make a mistake, you’re likely to still be receiving a monthly payment from him in two years—maybe with an upgraded device. So in cases like these, where “first relationship” is a major advantage, it’s worth making a significant investment to understand and engage customers in the Disorientation stage.

Although it benefits CPG brands to engage consumers at the Disorientation stage, being the first place where a newcomer buys a bag of groceries doesn’t necessarily mean you’re at the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It’s easier to experiment and mix and match in the grocery category, so forging an early
connection doesn’t provide the same return on investment as it does for businesses where relationships are stickier. CPG firms are therefore better advised to pay moderate attention to Disoriented newcomers, and instead work hard to understand the Orientation phase.

This text is adapted from the new book from Environics Publishing,Migration Nation: A Practical Guide to doing Business in Globalized Canada by Kathy Cheng & Robin Brown. To find out more or order the book please visit: MigrationNation.ca

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