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Dartmouth resident Brianne Carter hasn’t been to a grocery store since the pandemic hit in March, choosing instead to rely on online grocery orders, meal kits, and the occasional restaurant food delivery.

“I don’t have a car and wanted to minimize my exposure, both on the bus and in the store itself,” Carter said. “I think I’ll go back to a grocery store (when the pandemic ends), but less often. As someone who relies on the bus, it is much easier to get everything I need from one grocery order than to worry about what I can feasibly carry home.”

Carter is far from alone.

A report released today by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab says 4.2 million more Canadians are ordering their food online at least once a week compared to six months ago. In addition, the study suggests almost half of those surveyed (49.4%) intend to continue doing so when the pandemic is over.

In keeping with that trend, online sales in the retail food industry are expected to triple by the end of 2020 when compared with pre-pandemic levels of 1.7%.

Headshot of Sylvain Charlebois
Dalhousie University professor Sylvain Charlebois. Photo: Dalhousie University

“There’s a significant shift in the marketplace. Of course that’s due to COVID, the fear of the virus, and people starting to order a little more often because the service offered is much more convenient,” the report’s lead author and Dalhousie University professor Sylvain Charlebois said in an interview.

“The level of service we get is outstanding compared to just eight months ago. We can order from grocers, we can order from farmer’s markets, we can order wine, we can order a lot of things we couldn’t order before COVID because many companies have pivoted and decided to establish a relationship with consumers.”

The report, conducted in partnership with Ontario-based research firm Caddle, found that convenience was the most popular reason Canadians ordered food online (33.8%) with concerns about the virus coming in second at 13.8%. This was followed by 6.9% selecting “mandatory self-isolation or confinement” as their reason for first purchasing food online.

Nova Scotians ‘most concerned’

One thing that surprised Charlebois was that of all Canadians surveyed for the study, Nova Scotians (20.4% of them) were most likely to order groceries and food online due to concerns about the virus. Quebec, a province hit hard by COVID-19, came in second at 18%.

“It was a big surprise that Nova Scotians are the ones that are the most concerned about the virus despite the Atlantic Bubble, so that tells you just how people are fearful,” Charlebois said. “I mean, 20% is pretty high. A lot of people are scared out there.”

Among Canadians surveyed, 31.3% said they’d turned to online shopping for their groceries over the last six months. This includes curb side pick-up and home delivery options. That was followed by 28.6% ordering online direct from a restaurant, 26.3% ordering through a delivery app, 12.8% choosing meal kits, and 4.1% ordering farmers market items online for local delivery.

Annapolis Valley farmer Katie Keddy, her husband, and two young children used to enjoy grocery shopping together as a weekend family activity. But when COVID-19 hit the province, they were among the millions of Canadians who turned to online grocery orders for the first time because it was both safe and convenient.

“We did that quite a few times, until probably this summer…Then we got more comfortable and switched back to our local Foodland just five minutes away, and so we kind of stick to smaller grocery chains now,” Keddy said in an interview. “But we would have never tried online grocery shopping had it not been for the need with COVID-19.”

Her husband is delighted to be back grocery shopping — alone — where he can browse the meats and cheeses, something he’ll continue to do as long as it’s safe. Keddy said one trend she hopes becomes a permanent fixture is the number of people in her Annapolis Valley circle ordering online from farmers’ markets during the pandemic. Many, including her family, chose that option over grocery stores since the spring.

“That was something new for agriculture and for families in our areas. That was a huge change, and hopefully we see that continue as well,” Keddy said. “It is amazing and great for our local economy and producers. Hopefully some of those trends continue and old habits don’t all come back.”

Broken down into age categories, the study noted that 57.1% of boomers and 28.4% of millennials stated they hadn’t used online food services in the last six months.

In all, 63.8% of Canadians indicated they had purchased food online “in some capacity” in the last six months.

“Because of (Monday’s) announcement in Nova Scotia, I suspect that more people will order food online because as soon as you have someone you’re hosting coming from outside the bubble, everyone has to go into self isolation,” Charlebois said.

“We are expecting demand for that kind of service to increase as a result of new policies coming into place and we don’t see an end to it. Right now we’re in the middle of a second wave. There even may be a third wave coming, and people are going to want to continue to stay safe as much as possible.”

Online trend ‘comes at a price’

Charlebois said more than $12 billion will be spent over the next five years in Canada alone to increase capacity to deliver food to people’s homes. He points to Loblaws and Walmart — both “digitizing food distribution” to the tune of $6 billion and $3.5 billion respectively — and the recent launch of Sobeys’ ‘Voilà’ delivery service which includes the construction of at least two new distribution centres.

“We do believe that perhaps the market could be over-stored as a result of all this traffic online, so you could see store closures to support our grocers’ e-commerce strategies,” he said.

When it comes to convenience, Charlebois said online food ordering is an ideal option. But he cautions the associated delivery and service fees are most likely to impact those who are already struggling, including seniors, people with mobility and health issues, and those who don’t have adequate transportation options.

“Going back to the self isolation policy that we have now with the Atlantic Bubble, if you go out and come back well you can actually get your food delivered to your home but you have to pay a premium of 5 to 7 % so it becomes a food security issue,” Charlebois said.

“I’m wondering whether the government should actually try to make sure that if people are in self isolation to keep everyone safe, shouldn’t we be thinking about making sure that these people have access to affordable food as well? Because two weeks is two weeks and if you’re a family of three or four that adds up. I’ve been concerned about that…It’s great that more and more markets are well serviced, but at the same time it comes at a price.”

Survey participants were also asked what they disliked about the experience of ordering food online.

Canadians who participated in the survey also shared their dislikes about ordering food online. Graph: Dalhousie University Agri-Food Analytics Lab

The Dalhousie University/Caddle study included a representative survey of 7,290 Canadians conducted online from Nov. 4 to 5. The margin of error is +/- 1.6%, 19 times out of 20.

As originally published, the headline on this article mischaracterized the study results.

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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