Digital insights from Canadian retailers during COVID-19 - Retail Council of Canada
Articles | Digital Retail & Technology

Digital insights from Canadian retailers during COVID-19

June 8, 2021

This article is provided by Reshift Media, a Canadian-based digital marketing and development organization specializing in retail businesses

Retailers have undergone major changes throughout the pandemic, not only in their day-to-day operations but also in the strategies they employ for success. Depending on the sector, retailers have either shown steady growth during the pandemic due to their adaptability, or a gradual decline in their ability to address their consumers’ needs, which may impact strategy moving forward.

These changes and shifts in strategy were the main themes in the second day of webinars led by the Retail Council of Canada and Reshift Media. Moderated by Kirk Allen, COO and Co-Founder of Reshift Media, this webinar featured a panel discussion with three retailers to discuss the pandemic’s impact on retail: Derek Weidl, Director, eCommerce & Loyalty at M&M Food Market, Michèle Bilodeau, Marketing & Client Experience Director at Surmesur, and Michael LeBlanc, Senior Retail Advisor and Founder & President of M.E. LeBlanc & Company Inc. To watch the webinar, click here.

Consumers now demand eCommerce solutions

Due to the vast differences in retail sectors, sales may have looked different for companies depending on their customers and the goods they produce. However, there is no question that COVID-19 has significantly impacted consumer behaviour patterns and has permanently affected the way companies should approach and engage with their core customer base.

Advancements in eCommerce have been seen consistently over the course of the pandemic. LeBlanc noted that strategically speaking, retail has never seen that kind of large-scale jump in technological advancement. “There’s no question that COVID put the foot on the gas of eCommerce in this country. We are probably ahead three years from where we were going to be, notably, where we were going anyway. It’s acceleration, not creation.”

The shifting focus to eCommerce has not only positively impacted the way consumers shop during the pandemic, but it will also have a long-term impact on how retailers operate. LeBlanc said he believes retailers will see a demand by consumers to eliminate friction even more going forward. Post-pandemic, he hopes businesses will continue to demonstrate fast decision-making and a willingness to think differently about where and how they serve customers.

How people buy groceries has changed

One retail sector that saw exponential changes to buying behaviour during the pandemic is grocery. Food retailers had to quickly adapt to how consumers shopped for food, the change in the type of food they bought, and where they shopped.

At M&M Food Market, Weidl said that “people’s relationship with food was completely upended by the pandemic,” and this became apparent in several ways. First, many people were cooking three meals a day for everyone in their household, rather than relying on the convenience of getting takeout for breakfast or lunch when they worked outside of the home. As well, there was a great deal of pantry stocking near the beginning of the pandemic, and frozen food was a big part of that. Weidl observed that many people were disaster planning and buying food that would last so that they could reduce their trips to the grocery store.

“People were looking for that frozen option, but the way they were shopping was different. They were consolidating their trips, there were new people to the category altogether, there were people that were reactivated back into our brand that had reduced or stopped shopping with us previously, and eCommerce was a major part of that as well,” says Weidl. These changes in buying habits resulted in M&M Food Market seeing 10-13x more activity on their eCommerce channels than ever before, with many consumers shifting focus away from discounts and more on meal solutions for people in their household.

Brick-and-mortar retailers have adapted to customer needs

Many brick-and-mortar stores rely heavily on the customer and employee relationship. At Surmesur, this is especially true, as they have historically engaged more in in-person client experiences rather than eCommerce. Since they mainly sell suits, which weren’t necessarily in high demand during the pandemic, Surmesur knew they needed to immediately adapt to what their clientele was wearing. Bilodeau said, “We introduced casual wear within our market. That was something already happening pre-pandemic, so we were able to fast track that whole situation and make sure we could really see what our clients needed and reflect that need directly within our offer.”

Not switching focus to eCommerce was a decision Surmesumade when they found that buying over the phone was a more popular option for their customers than buying online. Now that COVID-19 restrictions have loosened in some locations, Bilodeau said customers have started coming back into the store, knowing they are in a safe space. She said she’s started seeing people shopping in-store again as an escape from their day-to-day tasks. They are not necessarily in need of a suit, but they see it as an activity and an opportunity to chat with Surmesu stylists. “The whole experience became more about a feel-good moment than a real retail ‘I’m buying something because I need it’ experience.”

Retail strategy has been transformed

The way consumers’ shopping habits have changed has helped transform the way companies offer their services. For example, curbside pickup continues to meet the needs of consumers and is something a great majority of retailers have implemented, and will continue with after the pandemic. Other activities within companies, such as external communications, have also had to be rethought.

At Surmesu, Bilodeau said that at the start of the pandemic, any kind of advertisement was getting backlash just for existing. It wasn’t because of the messaging, but rather, people were stuck at home and thought Surmesu shouldn’t be advertising during a pandemic. This caused them to shift their entire marketing strategy to become more agile, and when different regions began to open back up, they could re-target those specific markets again. Once they adapted their marketing strategy, they began to push campaigns that included more “feel-good” messaging as a way to meet the current desires of their customers, such as ads about being able to look your best self.

Retailers such as M&M Food Market didn’t necessarily have the same problems with advertising, although Weidl notes they did pause campaigns at first when the pandemic began because they didn’t know the next steps. They needed to ensure the best way to approach consumers in an environment where there was a lot of fear and uncertainty. Getting operational information out to their consumers, such as changes to store hours, was critical. Weidl said they also revamped their messaging. “Suddenly frozen was much more of a benefit than it typically has been for consumers, so that played into how we adjusted our messaging. We leaned on the fact that we are frozen experts.”

Future initiatives or strategies in the works

The changes retailers implemented throughout the pandemic will likely continue post-COVID. Surmesustill wants to offer casual wear to their customers, especially since changes to the work wardrobe will be dependent on possible new work from home/in-office hybrid working models, while M&M Food Market continues to focus on developing their eCommerce experience.

LeBlanc said that consumer expectations have gone up, not down. “If you are not a brand that people will remark on and share with their friends, you’re going to fall by the wayside.” He also notes that because no one really knows what things are going to look like over the next two years, agility is extremely important.

The pandemic has significantly altered the way many retailers operate. Adapting to evolving consumer behaviour and expectations is the key to future retail success.

About Reshift Media

Reshift Media is a long-time partner of the Retail Council of Canada. The company is a Toronto-based digital marketing and development organization that provides leading-edge social media, search and website/mobile development services to retailers around the world. Please visit to learn more.