Canadian grocery stores sought to reassure customers concerned about food shortages this week, with some introducing special shopping times dedicated to seniors amid the coronavirus outbreak.
“What was usually sold in four days was sold in four hours,” said Marc Fontin, president of the Retail Council of Canada’s (RCC) Quebec division. The RCC represents several grocery store chains in Canada, including Loblaw, Metro and Sobeys.
“Now it’s a question of replenishing shelves. There are no food shortages and no food issues. Our warehouses are being filled.”
Several chains, including Sobeys and Loblaw, which operates Shoppers Drug Mart, announced this week that they will dedicate the first hour of operations for seniors and people living with disabilities.
Sobeys chief executive Michael Medine said that beginning Friday, many of its stores will devote the first hour of operations “to those most vulnerable and those who require extra attention, particularly seniors.” Loblaw has also began rolling out a similar initiative, including at Shoppers Drug Mart.
Taking inspiration from #Bloved at Sobeys Belmont, we are scaling our "Senior Shopping Hour". Starting this Friday, many of our stores will be devoting the first hour of operations to those most vulnerable and require extra attention, particularly seniors. pic.twitter.com/ckQyIexTS8
— Sobeys (@sobeys) March 17, 2020
1/2 Starting this week, Shoppers Drug Mart is dedicating the first opening hour of shopping at our stores to our customers who need assistance or consideration, including seniors and people living with disabilities.
— Shoppers Drug Mart (@ShopprsDrugMart) March 17, 2020
In a letter sent on Monday, Loblaw chief executive Galen Weston repeatedly stressed that customers “do not worry” and that the company is prepared to handle the ongoing crisis that has seen Canadians flock to grocery stores, wiping shelves clean of items such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
“First and foremost. Do not worry. We are not running out of food or essential supplies,” Weston said.
“Our supply chain and store teams are responding to the spikes in volume and quickly getting the most important items back on the shelf. Volumes are already normalizing somewhat, and we are catching up.”
Sobeys also released a statement this week, saying the company is “working around the clock” to serve the unprecedented amount of customers flooding into grocery stores.
“I have great confidence in the incredibly robust grocery and food supply chain in Canada,” Medine said. “We are working hard to keep our shelves stocked in the face of unprecedented demand for products.”
Canadians have been rushing to grocery stores and “panic buying” items as authorities across the country introduce new recommendations and heightened warnings about the spread of the virus known as COVID-19.
A new survey conducted by Angus Reid and Dalhousie University found that 71 per cent of Canadians are concerned about the coronavirus outbreak, with 41 per cent reporting that they had made food provisions in response. The survey, which was conducted between March 13 and 15, also found that 65 per cent of Canadians were concerned about risks at the grocery store.
Sylvan Charlebois, a professor of food policy at Dalhousie University, said the empty shelves at Canadian grocery stores are not a reflection of the supply chain failing.
“The challenge that we saw was in-store merchandising. It’s hard to keep up with such intense demand for certain products,” he said.
“Over the next few days, I do believe that stores will get back to normal.”
Weston also sought to alleviate other concerns Canadians have raised regarding potential price hikes and store closures as the province and federal government reduce services in an effort to contain the coronavirus.
“We will not raise a single price on any item to take advantage of COVID-19,” Weston wrote.
“We have been in contact with both provincial and federal governments. We all agree that food and drug stores are essential services and we must do what we need to in order to keep them operating and serving every community in the days and weeks ahead.”
But Weston admitted that operations at Loblaw stores will not “be business as usual.” Some items – such as hand sanitizer – may take longer to restock. The company may limit the number of people allowed to enter stores at a single time, in order to maintain social distancing.
Last week, Loblaw lowered home delivery fees and eliminated pick-up fees for its click-and-collect service. But as the company grapples with a spike in demand, Weston encouraged those who are healthy, mobile and symptom free to “do your best to make it into store.”
“All of us will face uncertainty and new challenges over the coming days,” Weston said.
“Our stores and our services will be far from perfect. But, we will do everything in our power to make sure you have what you need for yourselves and your families.”