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Canada’s grocery industry concentrated in too few hands, Competition Bureau says

Canada’s grocery business is controlled by large players and needs government assistance to encourage new entrants to bring down prices, a report from the Competition Bureau says.

The report, published Tuesday, is the result of a probe that Canada’s top competition watchdog launched last year, when concern over food prices hit a fever pitch.

The bureau spent months examining many aspects of Canada’s grocery business, which is dominated by three domestic giants — Loblaws, Metro and Sobeys owner Empire — along with foreign players like Walmart and Costco.

Together, those 5 companies combine for more than three-quarters of all the food sales in Canada.

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In the report, the bureau found the industry is not as competitive as it could be, and consumers are paying the price for it.

“Canada needs solutions to help bring grocery prices in check,” the bureau said. “More competition is a key part of the answer.”

To that end, the bureau recommended four broad policies aimed at spurring competition in the sector. They are:

  • To establish a Grocery Innovation Strategy aimed at supporting the creation of new types of grocery businesses, specifically ones that only sell online.
  • Policies from all levels of government to encourage new independent and international players to set up shop in Canada.
  • Introducing legislation to mandate harmonized unit pricing requirements, which will make it easier for consumers to comparison-shop for deals.
  • Limit property controls, which currently restrict how real estate can be used by competing grocers, making it difficult, or even impossible, for new stores to open.

“Change will take time,” the bureau said. “These solutions will not bring Canadians’ grocery bills down immediately. But by acting now, governments at all levels can take steps toward creating a more competitive grocery industry in Canada.”

The bureau’s study found that while most countries are currently grappling with high prices for groceries, it’s a different situation in Canada because the market is more consolidated than it is elsewhere. 

A big problem is that in Canada, the main chains own discount rivals more than they do elsewhere.

“Loblaws owns No Frills and Maxi, Sobeys owns FreshCo, and Metro owns Food Basics and Super C,” the bureau said. “This is different from other countries where large grocers compete against lower-priced options, like Aldi and Lidl.”

Illustration of different Canadian grocery brands and who owns them
Canada’s three big grocery chains own a slew of brands up and down the value chain. (Competition Bureau)

Big chains have unfair advantages

Independent grocery chains are often a great alternative, but they don’t take up as big a portion of the market as they do elsewhere, the bureau said. That’s because many of them are forced to buy their wares from the big chains in the first place.

“According to independents, this dependency makes it more difficult for them to compete on price,” the bureau said.

Large chains also get paid by suppliers to put their products on shelves in the first place. 

“Independent stores generally aren’t, and that can put them at a disadvantage,” the bureau said.

Even finding real estate to open a new store can be a challenge, because they generally need a large, accessible space with the capacity for parking.

“Many of the locations that could support a new grocery store are already controlled by the grocery giants,” the report found.

The bureau noted that the level of competition in Canada very much depends on where you live, as big cities generally have a lot more options for shoppers, whereas remote and rural communities are often beholden to whatever stores are available.

Shopping at one of the major chains in Calgary recently, shoppers told CBC News that while they felt like they had plenty of options, they doubted that new players would be able to do much to bring down prices.

A photo of Calgary shopper Mary Januszczak
Mary Januszczak says even if a new grocery store were to open, she doubts it would save her much money because of the expense of having to drive to it. (CBC)

“Right now, I find in the flyers, they’re all the same,” said Mary Januszczak. “Everybody’s copying each other — these guys have the same price as Safeway, Save-On [has] the same price.” “It used to be … somebody would have something better on sale, and you’d go over there. Now everybody’s the same.”

If a new store were to open, Januszczak said it would take a lot for her to go there, due to the convenience factor of her current store. “Even if they’re cheaper, I’d spend more money on gas to get there.”

Shopping at the same store, Kalvin Lau said he doubted there is much that can be done about higher prices.

“As long as the grocery chains dominate the market, I don’t think there will be huge change,” he said.

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