Consumers’ pandemic shopping habits likely to remain in a post-COVID-19 world, at least in the short run.
Originally printed in the May 2021 issue of Produce Business.
There are two things you need to know about Montreal if you plan on doing business in Canada’s second largest city: It is very diversified, and it is very competitive.
It’s also a big market, so it’s worth the effort to build your produce presence in Montreal, which is the economic center of the province of Quebec. The metropolitan region’s population has been steadily climbing in recent years, and currently stands at 4.2 million people.
And Montreal’s access to transportation — the second largest port in Canada, with three airports, railways and interstates — makes the city a key location in northeastern North America.
RICH AND VARIED CULTURE
A distinctive, multilingual city, Montreal wears its multicultural mantle proudly. French is the official language, but companies also create packaging, labeling, marketing and promotions in English, and most produce business employees speak English. In fact, one-third of all Montrealers speak a third language, in addition to English and French. Montreal’s European link also spills into its inventive food culture, with an emphasis on quality, even among staples.
In 2016, award-winning food writer Alan Richman dubbed Montreal “the new food capital of North America” — diverse and delicious — in an article for Town and Country. That’s a distinction food industry representatives are taking seriously. In fact, 100 industry stakeholders gathered in late 2019 for a one-day conference on how to position Montreal as North America’s food capital, emphasizing food from traditional to modern.
In Montreal, agrees Mireille Thibodeau, “food is everything.”
Thibodeau is vice president for fresh procurement and merchandising for Sobeys, which has more than 1,500 stores in more than 900 communities across Canada under retail banners that include Sobeys, Safeway, IGA and IGA extra, Foodland, Thrifty Foods, FreshCo and Lawtons Drugs.
“Food is at the center of a family reunion, or with friends — everything revolves around an eating experience, which is not exactly the same in the rest of the country. [In Montreal,] we like to eat and eat well, and try things.”
The diversity of Montreal’s people is mirrored in the diversity of stores that offer fresh fruits and vegetables. You’ll find large chain stores such as Metro, Loblaws, Walmart and Costco; medium-sized retailers, independent stores, as well as small fruit stores everywhere. There are also open air markets and farmers markets.
The breadth of the diverse retail markets is linked closely to the second thing you need to know about the Montreal market: It is competitive.
To succeed in that competitive market, quality and customer service are keys, says Salvatore Lavorato, vice president at Montreal-based Gaetan Bono Fruits et Legumes, a wholesaler and importer/exporter of fresh fruit and vegetables.
“We focus on providing the best products at a competitive price with the best service,” Lavorato says. “Our team goes above and beyond to satisfy the customer.”
That commitment was challenged on many fronts during the past 16 months, as consumers and all food sectors were hit by restrictions enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It has definitely been challenging times,” Lavorato admits, as his company shouldered a substantial decrease related to all foodservice sales. “Luckily enough, we have seen an increase in our sales to retail, food transformation and home delivery business. Thanks to our dedicated and passionate team, we were able to adapt very quickly to the new reality.”
“Customers are shopping fewer stores than before, filling up bigger baskets and making fewer trips. They’re really looking for a one-stop shop.”— Mireille Thibodeau, Sobeys
“Challenging” is the word Maria Cavazos, president of MC Produce Inc., uses to describe the past year, too. “It was challenging to adjust our volumes and market prices to make our product(s) attractive and mostly available to our customers.”
Logistics and transportation bottlenecks continue for produce distribution, whether trucks from Mexico or within Canada, Cavazos says. “Since last year, we are experiencing lower volume on carriers.”
Throw in a freakish, historic winter storm in normally temperate Texas in mid-February 2021 — although clear across the U.S. from Montreal — and you have freight volatility and higher transportation costs.
Cavazos says it’s also been more difficult to do produce transfers at customs because U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) COVID-19 protocols limited the number of employees in warehouses to do the transfers.
Lavorato says there were adjustments at first as produce consumers and suppliers alike figured out a new way of life, but “I believe buyers have adapted and are now as efficient remotely, with the proper support.”
SHIFT TO ONE-STOP SHOPPING
There was a shift in consumer habits during the COVID-19 pandemic, and most of that is still in place, says Sobey’s Thibodeau. “Customers are shopping fewer stores than before, filling up bigger baskets and making fewer trips. They’re really looking for a one-stop shop.”
“We see customers going back to their roots and cooking more from scratch, as an example,” she adds. “Everything revolves around eating three meals a day at home.”
And she expects that will remain; “They will choose their store based on convenience, what is closest to home, or what is the safest.”
Consumers’ concerns over cleanliness and safety are also likely to remain in a post-pandemic world, Thibodeau says, so stores’ safety procedures will continue to be a priority.
“Based on what we know and what we see in the stores, we think a portion of this type of buying will remain for the next year,” Thibodeau says. “But there’s a difference that I believe will remain — they will shop where it’s more convenient and reduce the number of trips to the grocery.”
She expects these grocery shopping and cooking-at-home trends will remain during the remainder of 2021, as employers offer more work-from-home options.
WHAT TO WATCH
One of the big trends, says Sobeys’ Thibodeau, is “all about local.” But, she adds, it’s not really a trend anymore, “it’s just how it will be.”
Everything that goes with snacking is also trendy right now, she adds, from cherry or grape tomatoes, to berries and other small produce. Snacking is not a new driver of produce purchases, but grew as people were at home during the pandemic, “and we think it will continue.”
“Hopefully, you can snack on produce and not something else.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Thibodeau says Sobeys’ consumers tended to buy packaged produce, but that has flipped to more bulk purchases, as from-scratch baking and meal preparation continues, as well as at-home snacking.
Thibodeau also believes more consumers are talking about meat alternatives, or vegan and vegetarian options, many of which can be found in produce departments. “It’s really something that is growing very, very fast.”
The foodservice sector is opening up in Quebec — indoor dining in Montreal was slated to begin May 31 — and both Lavorato and Cavazos are expecting a produce boom when more eateries open back up to in-person dining.
Montreal has the highest number of restaurants per capita in Canada, so the reopening of restaurants will indeed boost produce sales there immensely.