The pandemic has expanded online grocery shopping and delivery, but experts say in-store customers will be back


Online orders and delivery by Canada’s major grocers have gone from new to normal since the start of the pandemic, accelerating the shift to electronic shopping that was already underway.
“We are now seeing growth rates that we expected to see in three to four years,” said Sarah Joyce, senior vice president of e-commerce at Sobeys.

In its most recent quarterly report, the Canadian grocery giant said e-commerce sales rose 241% from 2019.

“We’re still seeing strong growth today,” Joyce said. “As foreclosure announcements continue, more and more people are turning to online grocery shopping. ”

Unprecedented demand for online orders at Canada’s three largest grocery chains, which control over 60% of the nation’s supermarket industry, has forced Loblaws, Sobeys and Metro to accelerate expansion plans already In progress.

WATCH | Canada’s top 3 grocery retailers have invested in online shopping:

Canada’s three major grocery retailers made big investments in their online offerings when demand exploded during the pandemic, but some analysts don’t expect demand to stay at that level once the pandemic ends . 2:00

For example, Sobeys, which ships under the name Voilà by Sobeys, opened a $ 100 million warehouse in Vaughan in June, about 36 kilometers northwest of Toronto. Inside, hundreds of cube-shaped robots compile online orders for more than 16,000 products. The robots move along a three-story storage system called “the beehive,” delivering items to the humans below who pack them.

Retail robots

The robots, which are from British firm Ocado, can round an order of 50 items in five minutes, Joyce said.

Vaughan’s “Customer Center” recently expanded its service area to include Barrie, approximately 112 km north of Toronto, and Guelph, approximately 95 km west of the provincial capital, having previously served the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton nearby. Sobeys says orders have increased every week since launch.

WATCH | Robots process online orders:

In this video provided by Sobeys, cube-shaped robots move back and forth on a steel rack, each carrying groceries to where they’re needed on the lower floors. 0:15

Metro, meanwhile, reported that online food sales had nearly tripled from the previous year. The company has increased the ordering capacity of its hub stores and plans to open its first online ordering center in Montreal this summer.

The company, which operates in Ontario and Quebec, had planned to have 40 locations with “click and collect” service by the end of fiscal 2021 and will target more than 100 locations instead.

“We are ramping up our investments as demand increases, and we believe post-COVID consumer behavior will have shifted somewhat towards online shopping,” said Marc Giroux, executive vice president of e-commerce at Metro.

Loblaws says its e-commerce orders totaled around $ 1 billion in sales in 2019, but by mid-2020 they were already at $ 1.2 billion.

It opened more pick-up points and converted sections of five existing stores to strictly process online orders, with plans to convert additional stores underway.

Loblaws has announced plans to deploy five autonomous vehicles to deliver groceries after testing the system as part of a 10-month pilot project in Toronto. (Clifton Li / Loblaws)

Loblaws announced in November a multi-year collaboration with autonomous vehicle company Gatik following a 10-month pilot project in Toronto that used an autonomous vehicle for grocery delivery.

Gatik will operate five of these vehicles for Loblaws up to seven days a week, 12 hours a day, on five routes in the Greater Toronto Area. All vehicles will have a security driver as co-pilot.

However, not all Canadians want to shop virtually.

CBC News spoke to half a dozen shoppers outside a grocery store in Toronto, and most were skeptical of door-to-door orders.

Canadians will return to stores, expert says

Marion Chan, of TrendSpotter Consulting in Toronto, said it was a common sentiment among Canadians

“One of the hesitations Canadians have always had when shopping online is not being able to choose their fresh produce,” she said. “They don’t touch or feel things. They cannot read the packaging. I think the tactile experience is really important to Canadians.

Chan said online shopping has grown from 12% to 15% of Canadian shoppers before the pandemic to around 30% now, but she expects those numbers to drop when restrictions on the pandemic ease, in largely because of the desire of consumers to see their products.

Marion Chan of TrendSpotters says she expects a majority of e-shoppers to return to in-person purchases once the pandemic is over. (Keith Whelen / CBC)

She predicts that 20 to 25 percent of grocery shopping will be done online in the long term.

“I suspect there may be some disappointment [among retailers] how much… there will be continued online shopping, ”she says.

Joyce agreed and said even Sobeys doesn’t expect e-commerce to take over entirely.

“The majority of the business will still be in stores for a very, very long time,” she said.


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