Six months and a lifetime ago, retailers saw massive spikes in demand for online grocery shopping as the pandemic and lockdown became a reality. In March, Canadian Grocer talked to two grocers in the online space: Peter van Stolk, CEO of Vancouver-based Spud.ca, which operates in major B.C. markets, Calgary and Edmonton; and has five brick-and-mortar Blush Lane Organic Market locations; and Ran Goel, CEO and founder of Toronto-based Fresh City Farms, an omnichannel grocer that services the Greater Toronto Area and operates eight brick-and-mortar locations across three banners: Fresh City Farms, Mabel’s Bakery and The Healthy Butcher.
We decided to check in with van Stolk and Goel to see what’s changed since March and how things are going now.
First thing’s first, the craziness has calmed down. “We’re now seeing stabilization [rather than] that instant spike that we all saw back in early March,” says van Stolk. “Our organization has stabilized and our retail operations have stabilized.” Even so, the company has seen more than 100% growth in its core Spud.ca business. “Normally, we see a reduction in services during summer, but we didn’t see that because of increased new [customer] adoption we were getting,” says van Stolk.
Aside from more customers flocking online, van Stolk hasn’t seen any major shifts in consumer behaviours. But what he has seen is more emphasis on food transparency. “Customers are asking about where [food] is coming from and about the safety of the food,” he says. “2020 has a pandemic, there are incredible forest fires here in Pacific Northwest, and with [recent food] recalls people are saying, ‘this is getting crazy.’ So, they’re asking about food security and they want to talk about sustainability.”
Like many other grocery retailers, Fresh City Farms saw the initial panic buying, followed by customers coming in less often but buying more, followed by people gravitating towards eating comfort foods, and cooking and baking more at home.
But for Fresh City Farms, which was founded as an urban farm and still has a farm operation, it has also witnessed people’s newfound keenness for growing their own food.
“That has expressed itself in everything from people wanting seeds and seedlings in the spring, to soil amendments during the summer, and people wanting to come visit the farm,” Goel. “So, we’ve definitely seen an uptick in interest in growing food, which has been great to see.”
On the labour front, Fresh City Farms hired about a dozen laid-off restaurant employees back in March to help keep up with demand. Goel says most have stayed with the company, as many restaurants are either still closed or operating at reduced hours and capacity.
From an employer perspective, Goel says the hiring market is easier than it was pre-COVID. “But not as easy as you would think, given how many people have been displaced for work.” He believes that’s due to a combination of 1) people who have moved out of Toronto, if they’re not from the city, to their hometowns and 2) having income support from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). “We thought it would be a much softer labour market than what we’ve seen so far, but that could change as the government makes changes to the CERB program.”
In terms of preparing for a second wave of COVID-19, Goel says Fresh City Farms is in a much different place than when the pandemic started, including having access to personal protective equipment (PPE), and having knowledge about best practices. “The biggest question for us, and I think a lot of businesses frankly, is can the testing system keep up?’ he says.
“The ability to get rapid results is going to be critical going forward because if you have to send everyone home for 14 days if someone tests positive, that can be paralyzing,” he says. “Whereas if you’re sending people home for a couple days to get tested and get their results, it makes it much more palatable.”
At Spud.ca, one health-and-safety protocol is that if a staff member has a cough, they self-isolate and get tested. “I had a cough, so I had to do that,” says van Stolk. “I feel really positive that as a CEO I got tested, as I got to understand the process and am able to tell the team, ‘this is how it works and it’s really easy.’” Having a cough or not feeling well can be stressful, he adds. “So, there has been a lot of communicating and educating people around what the [testing] protocols are and how it works and that it’s okay.”
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