Printed store flyers may not return as COVID-19 changes retail habits

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Brent Barr has a nostalgic affection for the weekend tradition of flyer sailing.

Every Saturday morning, he and his wife meet at the breakfast table to rummage through a stack of newspaper ads from local grocery stores and retailers, looking for a great deal.

“It’s funny how it has only become part of what we do,” said Barr, instructor at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management.

“We are literally going through each of the leaflets. “

But lately, that stack of weekly flyers has been getting thinner as COVID-19 ripples hit the retail industry. Industry observers say it could be the global pandemic that finally marks the end of the age-old marketing tool.

The decline in paper flyers has continued since the digital versions gained popularity, but in the midst of the pandemic, some retailers were flirting with a wider elimination of the format.

Last month, a number of brands owned by Loblaw Companies Ltd. withdrew their flyers from the store as a preventative measure, in part due to fears that newsprint could become a vector for the spread of the virus.

Once this change took shape, the company went further by announcing its intention to permanently stop the production of paper flyers for several of its channels, including No Frills, Real Canadian Superstore and Maxi.

Spokeswoman Catherine Thomas described the transition as a “transition” to digital media as promotions move to online spaces and through the PC Optimum app, which includes a weekly digital flyer.

Canadian Tire began testing the fate of its own flyers on Friday when it advised customers that it had “temporarily stopped” distribution in Ontario, while buyers outside the province would receive hard copies at single use in stores on request.

Walmart Canada suspended its printed flyer for two weeks at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but has since resumed production.

Elsewhere, a representative from Montreal grocer Metro Inc. said last week that the company plans to keep its flyers. The owner of Sobeys and Safeway, Empire Co., did not respond to requests for comment.

New marketing methods

Loblaw’s decision to reduce its flyer production may prompt other industry members to reconsider how they allocate their marketing budgets, said Brynn Winegard, marketing and retail analyst.

She noted the growing number of buyers of all demographics who use their phones to compare prices of competitors in a particular store, making the traditional flyer less efficient from a retailer’s perspective.

Add to that the financial uncertainties for businesses operating in a pandemic, and Winegard expects more retailers to adopt a “pivot or perish” instinct as they look for ways to cut costs.

“We have never seen anything like this before – no one has seen it in any industry,” she said.

“But if you are not flexible and agile in the way you do business, you are unlikely to survive. “

Digital flyers have existed in the retail space for much of the decade, with online tools Flipp and Save.ca consolidating a database of weekly editions of major chains, while web forums such as Red Flag Deals debate the best deals.

Cultural change leaves industries that depend on revenues from print production and flyer distribution vulnerable before what economists predict will be a devastating recession.

Newsprint producers rely on retail advertisers to continue to grow their businesses, while many newspapers across the country remain afloat, in part thanks to support from national inserts from major chains.

Canada Post, which handles weekly flyer delivery through its direct mail service, said it has experienced a “noticeable drop” in this part of its operations “as companies reassess their business priorities during this unprecedented period ”.

It is too early to determine exactly how many paper flyers will disappear in the next few months, but Barr suggested that if retailers are looking to leave without irritating many customers, the time may be right.

He noted older buyers who may have been reluctant to adopt computers before COVID-19, but are now forced to communicate by digital devices to maintain contact with their families. He said it opened up the possibility of them considering a digital brochure.

“I think most people will recognize that this is a requirement for now,” he said, “and once they get used to it, they won’t be as worried about it in the future.” “

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