Toilet Paper and Avocados, Issue 31

Twenty plus years ago, I suggested to a real estate finance working group that eventually grocery stores would cease to be a reliable anchor tenant for shopping centres across North America. I argued that people did not enjoy the weekly trip to the shops to pick up toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, and package goods. My colleagues suggested that I might be losing perspective in suggesting that mundane purchases would be relegated to internet shopping. Their language may have been somewhat more colourful. 

The Winds of Change

The next fifteen years or so did nothing to prove me right. Grocers kept growing in size with super-sized product offerings to compete with Costco and Walmart. Then several years ago, I became aware that the Loblaw’s group had a group working feverishly to build an e-tail offering. Emerging subscription services started selling all kinds of personal grooming products such as shaving paraphernalia and dental care products. I suggest Harry’s Shave Club . They have high quality products and it is such a pleasure to never run out of blades or to be held ransom by Gillette’s extravagant prices. 

In Europe, I started to notice the increasing number of grocery vans delivering householders’ weekly shopping. In Retail: Armageddon or Opportunity, Issue 11 dated May 12,  the May 7 decision by British high-end grocer, Waitrose to open a six-acre customer fulfilment centre was reviewed. Nova Scotia based Sobey’s has built a similar facility in Vaughn near Toronto and in 2021 will open another customer fulfilment centre in Pointe-Claire to service the Montréal and Ottawa markets. Google ten best meal deivery services and you well get pages of hits for “prepare at home” meal kits such as Chef’s Plate, Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and La Boîte du Chef  here in Montreal.  Amazon bought Whole Foods. 

Public Markets and Smaller Shops

My colleagues never heard part 2 of my argument. They were laughing too hard. They did hear the tail end and the word “entertainment”. The laughter grew louder. I was suggesting that there would still be “bricks and mortar” grocery shopping but that the offering would have to be experiential. Ahem:

  • The popularity of public markets  has grown exponentially as consumers get more in touch with the quality of the food they consume
  • Smaller-format specialty grocers   have been opening at a rapid pace in Canada
  • Voila by IGA or Voila by Sobeys are the clics, Farm Boy and Pete’s are the new bricks
  • Metro purchased Adonis, which is popular for its experiential middle-Eastern specialties and not for its over-priced standard grocery offering
  • Local butchers, bakers, and green grocers, where avocados can be personally selected, are thriving

It isn’t only the grocery store

My argument was not just about the grocery store but it was the easiest analogy. Consumers have all kinds of basic product needs that are not exciting purchases. I get my furnace filters on-line but visit a hardware store for a specialty tool. Does anyone really look forward to buying underwear? I have a personal dislike for shoe stores (and socks) so I am so happy that I found  Allbirds, which are super comfortable without socks. Shopping for a new suit, a new shirt or a great sweater can be fun. Stores such as Clusier in Montreal have it figured out. Great brand selection, knowledgeable sales people who remember what you have in your wardrobe plus an espresso or occasionally something stronger when you visit.

I have stolen part of my title from an article by John Rousseau and Rob Girling that appeared in Fast Company on August 10 of this year entitled How Toilet Paper and Avocados explain the Grocery Store of the Future. I quote from that article:

“The future of grocery may come down to how we buy things like toilet paper and avocados—or the difference between transactional and experiential purchases”. I think that the word grocery can be replaced by retail. 

Sometimes it takes a long time to be right. In this case, the Coronavirus has hastened my ability to say “I told you so!”

The usual reminders:

  • Buy better, buy less, reduce, repair, reuse and recycle 
  • Shop local, support local businesses, buy from local farms, and support local artisans and manufacturers
  • Wear face masks where required, wash your hands, practice social distancing, hydrate, and exercise

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