Grocery as a Retail Indicator

Pre-pandemic, the Canadian grocery sector was on the cusp of disruption: saved from the fate of some U.S. small grocers (which were forced to compete with regional grocers), small grocery banners owned by major players (e.g., Loblaw, Metro or Sobeys) were segmenting into ethnic supermarkets, discounters, or high-end grocers. Grocery’s strength and department stores’ weakness meant that at the beginning of 2020, grocery stores were poised to become the new shopping centre anchor.

Grocery thrived while all other retail looked on. Source: J. C. Williams Group National Retail Bulletin

Post-March 2020, grocery was suddenly one of the only retail stores available and served as a testing ground for the myriad of new practices and technologies that would come into play over the course of the summer. In fact, grocery was the first to implement and subsequently streamline a number of processes that are now considered standard for retail:

  • Queuing systems (both low-tech and high-tech, where customers log into the queue from their phones and wait in their cars)
  • Curbside pickup
  • Sanitation practices & distancing signage
  • Cashier and staff protection

Because of grocery’s unique position this year, many of the trends that have hit other sectors have hit grocery first. Here are 5 trends that emerged in grocery first and 1 that hasn’t spread – yet.


While the work-from-home isn’t strictly a retail trend, it has had a profound effect on it nonetheless. For grocery, part of the huge surge in spend was due to restaurants being closed, but it also was a factor of how much time customers were spending at home. The combined effect was increased interest in cooking at home, especially during the summer when backyard hosting within social bubbles became intensely popular. For other sectors, the work-from-home trend has changed the hot seller list, such as leisure clothes vs. work clothes, home office furniture and décor, or hobby items and entertainments.

Shop Local

The pandemic was equalizing in a way that only a crisis can bring about. With Canadians’ work schedules changed, it highlighted how important small businesses are to their local neighbourhoods. Add that to the decentralization of the population into city centres as commutes were put on hold, and the shop local movement was born. For grocery, this was lucrative in catering to the local population from an ethnic or cultural standpoint. Outside of grocery, the convenience of nearby store offerings that likely weren’t as crowded had the shop local movement gain traction as well.

Caring Corp

The sudden and widespread lack of work and income meant that brands had to be clear that they were putting their teams’ health above productivity. Grocery stores were under particular scrutiny as consumers were sympathetic to the grocery store employees they interacted with face-to-face on a regular basis. Outside of grocery, brands were still under the spotlight for their compassionate practices, including for customers who were themselves healthy but had to care for others. Overall, more brand transparency was a welcome change that will hopefully stick around post-pandemic.


Just as the pandemic brought to light how much small businesses rely on their local neighbourhoods, it did the same for local farmers and manufacturers who struggled during shutdown. Especially as generation-Z enters the consumer market, grocers are being held to changing standards of community sourcing and transparency of their suppliers’ sustainable (or unsustainable) practices. Outside of grocery, customers are more interested in how their products are made, especially in terms of the natural environment, which was hit especially hard this year.

E-commerce Compatibility

Grocery, due to its nature as perishables, was one of the last sectors to make it online in a meaningful way. For grocery, our research indicates that dry or ‘centre aisle’ products are still most e-commerce compatible whereas fresh products such as meat, seafood, produce, bakery and so on are preferred to be selected in person. However, grocery stores have been leveraging e-commerce compatibility to drive BOPIS (buy online, pick up in-store) sales, something that other sectors have definitely been picking up on and adapting for their own pick-up in-store programs.


The final trend that was “pioneered” by grocery is the adoption of robots. In a post-pandemic world, grocery’s early adopton of robots will put them ahead of the curve as stricter sanitation standards become widespread. Here are some examples of robots already in use in grocery that could be adapted for other sectors in the future:

  • Starship Robots at Save Mart – small size hyper-local delivery robots that deliver online grocery orders.
  • Voila by Sobeys – robots that pack orders at a dedicated distribution centre.
  • “Marty” robots at Giant supermarkets – alerts human workers to spills and other issues on the store floor.

Final Word

All in all, grocery has been a good way to track the “pulse” of retail under a pandemic. Continuing to keep an eye on it could give valuable knowledge into the next big trend of your industry. Or, let us watch it for you! Contact us today to find out how the expert insights from JCWG’s RetailWATCH program can help your business thrive pandemic and beyond.


  1. Grocery stores are at the heart of a community and are certainly the ideal place to understand and track consumer habits. Grocery stores had to be the trailblazers at the start of the pandemic to make sure people had safe and reliable access to food. Grocery stores greatly benefit from a smart layout to ensure distancing and prioritize the goods people are looking for.

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