Analysis

Walkable grocery shopping on rise as consumers explore options

Large grocery stores are rethinking their interior look and layout to provide a small-market feel that copies a smaller neighbourhood feel, observes food columnist Andrew Coppolino.
Larger grocery chains are rethinking the store interior layout to provide an environment that copies the shopping experience of a smaller, neighbourhood market. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

With Walmart bidding to be Canada's top grocery store and Shoppers Drug Mart, a Loblaw enterprise, stocking shelves with fresh produce and even sushi, the battle is on for consumers' wallets and loyalty whether it's small or large retail.

A case in point: last week, Loblaw-owned Zehrs, a popular grocer in southwestern Ontario with 42 outlets, took a step toward capturing more customers in south Kitchener by opening a new store on Pioneer Drive to replace the aging one built in the late 1970s.

Built in what store officials call a "neighbourhood format," the larger store features a more streamlined design and yet more selection tailored to the surrounding neighbourhood demographics, such as specialty foods from cultures reflecting the local residents. Many of the newer Zehrs stores incorporate some of those elements, but it's only the second Zehrs with the full treatment; the first was in Barrie, Ont.  

Large meets small 

The evolution is the interesting aspect. The floor space is larger at the Pioneer location, yet increased specialty products take a cue from the smaller, artisanal shops also appearing in the grocery landscape — and both are competing for customers.   

At 50,000 sq.-ft., compared to the original 19,000 sq.-ft., the new store has a sushi bar, a wider range of fresh-made deli sandwiches and pizzas, all 32 salads that the company offers, more gluten-free foods and more cheese and organic produce than even the largest stores in the region, according to Pioneer store manager Mario Figueiredo. 

There's a return to an older style of butcher counter, and some of the self-service cases have vanished. There are still pre-packaged meats, but if you want a two-inch steak, they will cut it for you just like your local butcher shop. (And the kids love the dairy and egg coolers: when you open the doors, you hear cows and chickens.)

Figueiredo points out there is an expanded health and wellness food section, which serves that growing market niche.   

"It's the largest of the area Zehrs stores," he said. "There's an escalated knowledge base and training in this neighbourhood format too."

It's a response to the changes in the way people shop — Zehrs has online ordering and pickup, for instance.

Small and local

Throughout the Waterloo region specialty stores such as Legacy Greens and J & P Grocery in downtown Kitchener, Dutchies and Victoria Street Market all stock products often made by recognizable local producers. 

Similarly, large retailers are carrying more local foods and are tailoring selections to the kind of food that shoppers in the immediate area want. They're creating a smaller neighbourhood atmosphere inside their larger store footprint. ​

Several country farm markets are also serving up local products — not all of which they themselves farm — so the stores have become small specialty markets. Examples include Herrles Country Farm Market and Oakridge Acres. Local apple grower Martin's Family Fruit Farm no longer has a stand at the St. Jacobs Market: instead, they're focusing on their own Orchard Market retail store.  

Community

Shorter distances are important too. Figueiredo notes that many Doon customers were travelling to the Ottawa Street Zehrs, but they now have a full range of supplies "in their back yard." Densely populated apartments will use the new store as will Conestoga College students, many of whom are here year-round. Figueiredo says about 1750 new homes have been built in Doon South.  

The ability to shop in stores near to home means more people live in more walkable communities, which can reduce the need for driving and the space for parking. And that is a good thing.

I consider myself lucky to be able to walk to the Kitchener Market to shop on Saturday. In many ways, the market concept by retailers, both large and small, is to try to create their own version of a community marketplace that serves a niche and local clientele. I think that's another good thing, whether it's 50,000 sq.-ft. or 5,000. 


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