$9 Butter? Canadian Redditors Say No Thank You - Modern Farmer

$9 Butter? Canadian Redditors Say No Thank You

Subscribers to a Reddit thread organized a national boycott of grocery mega-chain Loblaws that grew into a community movement to promote farmer’s markets and local food.

Photography by Shutterstock

“Virtually all of the products I buy on the regular have experienced some degree of shrinkflation…The practice is intentionally based on deceiving the customer. It’s unethical.” 

This is getting ridiculous! I just spent $370 on groceries and have barely any food… How are people supposed to survive like this? Why is having three meals a day a luxury now?”

“Since the boycott, I’ve spent some time analyzing what I spend and where, and I’ve realized I can go entirely without the big three: Loblaws, Sobeys or Metro. I haven’t stepped foot in any of their stores since and I don’t plan on ever doing it again.”

These are just a few of the thousands of comments that Canadian Redditors have left on the page “Loblaws Is Out of Control,” where members share stories of $9 butter or tubs of $28 feta (twice the price of a competitor). The page was started by an Ontario woman, Emily Johnson, in November, as a way to share frustrations about high grocery prices. It quickly attracted members, with more than 79,000 people joining up in a matter of months. And they had a lot to talk about. In February 2023, the Consumer Price Index noted that food prices were up more than 10 percent year over year, double the national rate of inflation. It was the seventh straight month of double-digit food price increases. 

As more members joined the page, talk of a grocery store boycott began to intensify. 

Loblaws store shelves. Photography via Shutterstock.

Canada’s grocery market is dominated by five main retailers, which make up 76 percent of the market. The country’s biggest grocery chain, Loblaws, has cornered 28 percent of the market entirely. The company runs multiple brands of grocery and pharmacy chains, has several in-house lines that it sells, including the President’s Choice and No Name brands, and has long been a source of ire for Canadians struggling with rising food prices. While general economic inflation and rises in the cost of living do account for some hikes in food prices, these Redditors allege that price hikes have more to do with corporate greed and lack of competition than anything else. 

Learn More: Join the conversation on the "Loblaws is Out of Control" Reddit thread.

In addition to high costs, Loblaws has refused to sign a proposed Grocer Code of Conduct, saying that it worried that would lead to even higher prices on food. Loblaws has also struggled to regain public trust after its involvement in a bread price-fixing scandal over the 2010s. [Update: On May 16, the CEO of Loblaw Companies Limited told media they would sign the code of conduct as long as its grocery competitors did too.]

Frustrations reached a fever pitch; Loblaws was an obvious target for a boycott for many Canadians. 

On May 1, Loblaws announced its  2024 first-quarter profits; they’re up nearly 10 percent over the same time last year. The same day, the boycott officially started, with tens of thousands of shoppers vowing to ignore Loblaws. In smaller communities, where Loblaws stores are the only option, thousands vowed to cut their purchases.

Boycotters are demanding that both Loblaws and Walmart agree to sign the code of conduct, as well as commit to price caps on essential items and no retailer-led price increases for the rest of the year.

Loblaws chairman Galen Weston told media that the boycott is an example of “misguided criticism.” Weston said that he understood the frustration, but that expectations that Loblaws would be able to dramatically drop prices “betrays a misunderstanding of what’s actually driving food prices higher in this country.” However, Redditors have posted their own examples of small victories, which they attribute to the boycott: offers of extra reward points, photos and videos of items with large markdowns and alleged conversations about falling sales numbers.

With a boycott underway, the Reddit thread has become a place for people to offer tips and help their neighbors—with many finding ways to highlight local food or farmer’s markets. One user created We Food Wise, a site to help shoppers compare grocery prices. Another shared the site AltGrocery, which promotes local and indie food sellers, as well as farmer’s markets and co-ops. 

The pandemic made us all acutely aware of food prices and shortages, prompting questions about the trustworthiness of local supermarkets and whether food prices are justifiably higher post-pandemic,” said the creator of AltGrocery, in an email. They have opted to remain anonymous, as they say they want the focus of the site to be the farmers and food producers. 

learn more: find local food near you and support farmers on Altgrocery

So far, AltGrocery has received about 107,000 visitors, and it has even had to temporarily suspend the map feature due to high traffic. AltGrocery says it is updating the map functionality, so users can find local markets from their mobile phones. It is also working on introducing filter systems, which will allow people to sort food by price. It has also brought in about $800 in donations to put towards site upkeep. “I plan to keep running beyond any boycotts. I think, if anything, [the site has] educated people to second guess where they get their food from and how much something is being sold for.”

Photography via Shutterstock.

Local markets have seen a boom in sales already. Edmonton-based Forage Market, an online farmer’s market, saw a 37-percent boost in website traffic since the boycott began, leaving them cautiously optimistic. “The first day of the boycott, we were up 27 percent. That’s great, we’ll take that. And then the next day, we were up 175 percent,” says Courtney Hanak, business development manager for the market. “The support is always appreciated. But we’re definitely trying to think about how we can make this last. How can we show consumers that this is an option year round?”

Hanak and her business partner started the market during COVID, when empty grocery shelves were a norm. “We started asking ourselves, why aren’t we buying locally? I’m seeing empty grocery shelves, but I know that the farmer down the road grows [these products].” They found that traditional farmer’s markets weren’t always accessible, either by location or hours, so they opted for an online warehouse model. Customers can go on the website to select products from individual farmers, just like stalls at a farmer’s market, but Forage will package and ship them out together. 

Hanak says she’s happy to see people getting more acquainted with farmer’s markets and local food. “There’s still this myth that people assume the farmer’s markets will be more expensive. But with inflation and the grocery prices and where they’re at now, it’s not… We’ve done cost comparisons, and we end up beating the average grocery cart total by about $2.”

A PieceMeal Kit. Photography courtesy of Kara Friesen.

And many shoppers are happy to pay prices on par with grocery stores if they know where that money is going. “If you pay a farmer…then they’re going to take that dollar, and they’re going to spend it on a local hairdresser, they’re going to spend it at the local cafe, they’re going to spend it on items that are also provided locally. So, we are feeding our own economy rather than funneling our money to millionaires and billionaires,” says Kara Friesen, owner of PieceMeal, a Nova Scotia-based meal kit. Friesen works with local farmers to collect in-season produce, then puts together weekly meal kits, with recipes and instructions so people can easily throw meals together. When she heard of the boycott, she created the Loblaws Boycott promotion, offering a discount for new signups in the last two weeks of May.

Friesen is supportive of the boycott, but she recognizes that it’s not easy for everyone. “It is often hard for people to access food outside of the grocery stores, because these retailers are highly competitive and can sell food for less than it’s actually worth, because of things like the retail fees that they charge suppliers,” says Friesen. She recommends figuring out what you are able to purchase locally, with fresh produce at the top of the list. Then, make a meal plan around what’s available, and purchase only what you have to from bigger stores. 

“I’ve devoted a lot of time to researching our food systems and how it affects every aspect of our lives,” says Friesen.”When I saw the boycott, I just sort of breathed a sigh of relief and thought this is really something that could gain traction and maybe help educate the public a little bit more about how important it is to understand the food system.” 

Many in the Reddit community have spoken about expanding the boycott past May or to include other stores. The creator of AltGrocery also told Modern Farmer they would be interested in expanding their site to include the US, as mergers and consolidation have also resulted in high food prices further south. 

Emily Johnson, the creator of the Reddit page, has met with officials from Loblaw to talk about the demands of the boycott. She’s also started a petition with Canada’s House of Commons to ask for stronger anti-trust laws and investigate the pricing structure of large grocery stores. The petition has nearly 7,000 signatures so far. 

Update: On May 16, Lobaw CEO Per Bank told media that the company was ready to sign on to the Grocery Code of Conduct, provided that other grocers also sign. 

Take Action: Check out the petition to Canada's House of Commons to see the full list of requests to spur reform in Canada's grocery sector

 

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James Doyle
22 days ago

The big stores will get the government to go after farm markets and the farmers for food safety reasons.

Ryan
21 days ago

Yes Please! says I

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