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Grocery stores in Toronto scramble to quickly add online and delivery options

Major supermarket chains and grocery delivery services are overwhelmed with orders these days making smaller, local stores better options to stock up on necessary supplies. The problem? Many local stores don't yet offer online shopping.

But two local grocery chains, Rowe Farms and The Big Carrot, have recently launched online shopping stores with the option for delivery or contact-less pick-up.

But these stores’ online stores, while instrumental during the pandemic, weren’t actually created spur of the moment; both stores say that they had been planning these initiatives before the state of emergency shut down the city.

Jamie Cooney is CEO of Rowe Farms and says that the online shopping option had been on his radar for about a year, but that it was simply expedited by the pandemic.

“I would say probably about the 1st of February, we started to really focus our efforts on the online business,” Cooney said. “We were in the process of launching it, but when we saw what was happening to the marketplace, we just knew we had to double down and get something launched as soon as possible.”

Laura Iamundo, the marketing manager for The Big Carrot Community Market, says they started discussing a way to accept orders online before the state of emergency began.

“Prior to this exploding in Toronto, we had established an emergency response committee,” Iamundo said. “We've been meeting two days a week from the beginning of March.”

Now, The Big Carrot provides shoppers with the option to create a “shopping list” on their website. Customers can fill out the list at their leisure, specifying product brands and quantities and providing any additional comments. Their orders can then be picked up curb-side at the store during an allotted time slot.

It's not quite the sophisticated system of the typical online grocery store with prices, photos and a shopping cart but it's a start.

Rowe Farms provides customers with the option to shop from their inventory of groceries and produce, and gives them the option of selecting either in-store pick-up or delivery if they live within 2 kilometres of a store.

Before the outbreak, Rowe Farms’ online shopping option was never the priority, Cooney said. “We knew essentially what the framework would look like and had started the process of piecing it together,” Cooney said. They knew that they wanted to use the Shopify platform, for example.

“But we're a neighborhood retail experience,” he went on. “And so the online business was a nice-to-have.” But now, more than a month under quarantine measures, the online business has “certainly highlighted the priority for us,” he said.

Rowe Farms’ brick and mortar stores are still open throughout the city, but under restricted hours and a limited number of people allowed inside at a time.

Before the pandemic, Rowe Farms would see its regular customers about four times a week, now Cooney says they’re coming in once a week. “And rightfully so.”

“This might be our future retail landscape for a while,” Iamundo said. “So how do we do business within this?” 

These initiatives on both these retailers’ parts raise the question of survival for stores that hadn’t planned for an emergency — will businesses that don't have online shopping and delivery platforms survive the pandemic?

It seems that only time will tell.

Lead photo by

Hector Vasquez at the Big Carrot

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