The Post-Pandemic Grocery Industry

The grocery industry has had to make dramatic changes, in a remarkably short timeframe, to keep employees and customers safe. From limiting the number of customers shopping at a time, to disinfecting shopping cart handles at the door and installing Plexiglass shields to protect cashiers – the changes are easy to see.

But, what will the lasting impacts be? No one has a crystal ball, but the pandemic highlighted issues that required an immediate response under emergency conditions, raising the question as to what “normal” might look like in future. Motaz Sabri, vice president of category management, sourcing and new product development at Bunzl, describes how customer expectations and shopping habits have changed since the beginning of the pandemic, and how grocers will need to address these changes going forward.

Hygiene and Safety Protocols

As a result of the pandemic, shoppers will continue to be wary of exposure to pathogens that cause illness in public spaces, even after governments lift restrictions. Preventative measures will still be in place long after businesses are fully reopened. For grocery stores, that means that many of the additional cleaning and safety protocols implemented during the pandemic are here to stay. “It’s going to require an investment in labour to ensure that surfaces are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected,” said Sabri. “More than ever, this will make the choice of products and the implementation of labour-saving technologies critical, to enable grocers to ensure thorough and consistent cleaning while managing cost.”

Digital Evolution

Online grocery orders have been steadily increasing in Canada for some time. Before the pandemic, online grocery orders made up approximately 1.5% to 1.7% of food purchased in Canada. A recent report released by Dalhousie University, found that as a result of COVID-19, 9% of Canadians have purchased groceries online, and Retail Council of Canada (RCC) grocer members have reported a 700% increase in online sales.

As consumers opt to shop online to avoid potential exposure to the virus, many will begin to prefer this new convenience. More than ever, it will be important for retailers to differentiate themselves by offering additional services. “As more people begin shopping online, retailers will need to invest in warehouse optimization and their eCommerce capabilities to meet demand,” said Sabri. “Demand for home delivery will likely increase, in addition to click and collect.” This means grocers will need to stock more packaging for online orders and looks at ways to improve process efficiency for picking and packing.

A New Shopping Experience

It’s easy to see that the in-store shopping experience at grocery stores has changed dramatically since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, rather than returning to how things were before, it’s likely that the industry will implement new strategies to help keep staff and customers healthy, such as re-engineering store layouts to better support one-way traffic, while making it easier for customers to move through the store. According to Sabri, there will be substantial changes. “I believe we’ll begin to see totally different store layouts,” he said. “We may see registers moved to the perimeter of stores, designating more space for grocery aisles and cordoning off space for longer checkout lines to accommodate physical distancing.”

Supply Chain Transformation

When the Government of Canada first issued its state of emergency orders in March 2020, product shortages led many people to ‘panic-buy’ and stockpile products. The shortages this caused illuminated gaps in the supply chain, particularly around products that are sourced from greater distances or offshore. “In the future, grocery will probably give priority to local producers and manufacturers to reduce their reliance on suppliers in other regions,” said Sabri. “Additionally, the government might consider incentivizing local manufacturers to support local PPE production, making it easier to source these products in times of need.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the world and continues to affect thousands of businesses. As more pandemic closure measures are lifted, it’s likely that customer expectations and shopping habits will continue to shape how the grocery industry operates as the world recovers from COVID-19.

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