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Spanning the East

Major metro areas, diverse demand, and turning challenges into opportunities
MS_Spanning the East

Short season; no problem
While it’s true Canada’s eastern provinces have a relatively brief growing season compared to other regions for fruit and field-grown vegetables, produce purveyors have no problem sourcing product or filling the gaps when needed.

George Pitsikoulis, president of Canadawide Fruit Wholesalers Inc. is happily ensconced at the Place des Producteurs marketplace in Montreal.

Retail Scene
Eastern Canada’s supermarket scene is highly competitive as national chains, independents, and big box stores duke it out for market share. A handful of retail giants, however, continue to reign supreme.

“Prince Edward Island is pretty well [dominated by] Sobeys and Atlantic Superstore,” says Fulton Hamill, president of Fulton Hamill, Ltd. of Prince Edward Island. Owned by parent organization Loblaw Companies, Atlantic Superstore has 54 stores across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.

“In our particular area, there are a few smaller grocery stores,” Hamill adds. “But the big chains bought up all the wholesalers,” he says, eliminating the competition.

In addition to Sobeys and Atlantic Superstore, other major Eastern Canada players include Walmart and Costco. Sobeys is still struggling, since its Safeway acquisition in 2013, and has been slashing hundreds of corporate jobs as part of an “ongoing restructuring effort.”

In the meantime, Walmart Canada, which operates 410 stores across the country, is still on the upswing and opened the new Montérégie Supercentre in Longueuil late last year. It is the retailer’s first prototype store in Quebec and fifth in Canada, offering grocery pickup service as well as scan-and-go mobile technology—the first of its kind in Quebec.

Walmart offers Scan & Go in more than 20 Canadian stores to save time at checkout with portable scanners that tally the bill and finalize the total. Customers then bag their groceries and pay at a self-checkout kiosk.

Although major chains continue to control much of eastern Canada, independents are thriving in some cities. “In the Greater Toronto area, our most unique advantage is the density of independent retailers,” observes John Russell, president of J.E. Russell Produce Limited in Toronto. “They’re the lifeline of our industry. Fresh produce supplied by a very competitive wholesale market offers the best opportunities to compete with and outperform the retail giants.”

Julian Sarraino, vice president of marketing and sales for Fresh Taste Produce Ltd. in Toronto, wholeheartedly agrees. “We have a tremendous amount of diversity in Ontario,” he points out. “Consequently, every retailer has a unique strategy on how they approach this market.”

“I think Ontario has some of the best retailers in the country,” adds Dan Carnevale, vice president of operations for Toronto-based Veg-Pak Produce Ltd. “They’re doing an amazing job to maintain top quality produce while promoting new and innovative items all the time.”

He has no reason to lament the shortness of the region’s growing season. “There’s limited local production due to the weather and climate,” he acknowledges, but this opens the door to brisk cross-border trade, which “creates opportunities for importers and wholesalers such as ourselves.”