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Agriculture

Survey suggests shoppers approve of self-checkout lanes at the grocery store

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TORONTO — A new survey suggests most grocery shoppers spend 32 minutes per visit and approve of those automated self-checkout lanes.

The study out of Halifax’s Dalhousie University underscores that the “worst part” of shopping for many consumers is waiting for a cashier, says lead investigator and professor Sylvain Charlebois, who predicted even more grocery technology is on the horizon.

The management professor says he was surprised shoppers spent such little time per visit and shopped only 1.29 times a week, noting that’s less time and less frequent than similar studies on U.S. shoppers.

At the same time, it seems self-checkouts are becoming increasingly popular, with 25.1 per cent of shoppers “strongly agreeing” and 29.6 per cent “somewhat agreeing” that they are a good idea. Another 20.3 per cent were indifferent.

The Grocery Experience National Survey Report took place over three days in October 2018, and surveyed a controlled sample of 1,053 people online in both English and French. The margin of error is 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Charlebois said the study encompassed stores that dedicate the majority of their footprint to food, including chain supermarkets, small independents, butchers and bakeries. The findings were set to be released Tuesday.

He said shoppers seem to like variety, with the average Canadian noting they regularly visit at least two different stores.

“It’s certainly good news for competition, for independents (and) small stores. I suspect that Canadians are curious, they want to go to a place where they can find lots of different products,” he said, adding that the survey did not ask about the types of store most frequented.

Consumers also said they want more human interaction, which seemed to run counter to an apparent affinity for self-checkout. But it could just come down to the type of staff interaction they want, said Charlebois.

“The end of their experience, which is probably the worst part of grocery shopping — paying for your food, waiting in line, reading the first page of the National Enquirer — those are things people just don’t want to do,” said Charlebois, whose study found 11.1 per cent of respondents always use self-checkout, and 54.9 per cent occasionally use self-checkout.

“But when there is a situation where there’s some confusion, or consumers are a little bit lost, they want that human interaction. That’s why that assistance factor seems to be quite high.”

Still, he notes increasing automation runs the risk of pushing consumers out of the store in favour of online shopping.

“There’s a bit of a balance there. As a grocer you want to humanize the experience because that’s something you can’t replicate online,” he said. “And the other thing you cannot replicate online, which is actually making grocers lose sleep at night, is impulse buying.”

About half of the respondents, 49.4 per cent, said they had never bought groceries online and were not planning to, while another 34.3 per cent said they were considering it.

Canada’s first self-checkout lane appeared in 2000, when the technology was somewhat cumbersome, said Charlebois.

“It’s not as bad as it used to be but there’s more work that needs to be done. I do see the day where people will be able to walk out of the grocery store without seeing someone, (without) paying anyone, basically. It would actually be withdrawn from their bank account automatically, like Amazon Go.”

The study also suggests some urban/rural divides.

City dwellers appear more likely to choose a store based on its ownership, while rural dwellers seem to prioritize price.

And while just five per cent of the total sample said they currently subscribe to a meal kit service or are considering a subscription, that number rose to 60 per cent among urbanites.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

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Agriculture

PM worries China could target more Canadian goods as fears about soybeans rise

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OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s worried an ongoing diplomatic dispute could see China target imports of other Canadian agricultural products as concerns grow about soybean shipments in particular.

One industry leader said Thursday that, without a clear explanation, Canadian soybean exports to China plunged suddenly from 3.2 million tons over the final four months of 2018 to just 3,700 tons through the first four months of this year.

Relations between Canada and China have deteriorated since the December arrest in Vancouver of Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the United States.

China was outraged by Meng’s arrest and has since detained two Canadians on allegations of espionage and sentenced two other Canadians to death for drug-related convictions. 

Chinese authorities have also blocked imports of Canadian canola seeds, alleging they found pests in shipments, and have increased inspections and paperwork related to pork.

“When it comes to China, obviously, our top concern is the release of Canadians who are detained in an arbitrary way by the Chinese for political reasons,” Trudeau said in French on Thursday during a visit to France, where he marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day. “We are also concerned by their actions on canola and the potential of other actions on other products.”

Trudeau told reporters that he will see if it’s “appropriate or desirable” to have a conversation directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping about a number of bilateral difficulties later this month at the G20 summit in Japan.

Later Thursday, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau told a parliamentary committee that she’s heard concerns about shipments of Canadian soybeans to China.

Ron Davidson, executive director of Soy Canada, said in an interview that China’s purchases of Canadian soybeans collapsed at the end of last year following a run of very strong exports.

“It’s not a slowdown — it’s a virtual halt,” said Davidson, whose members have reported the drop to Bibeau. “We can see what’s happening, but we aren’t certain why.”

He said it’s not unusual to see soybean exports decrease during winter months, but the speed, magnitude and timing of the crash this time around has alarmed the industry.

Davidson said he’s received reports of Canadian soybean containers held up in Chinese ports for longer than usual as authorities there conduct additional tests. It’s possible, he added, that the drop is partly due to an increased reliance by China on soybeans from other parts of the world.

Soybeans are Canada’s third-most valuable agricultural export after canola and wheat, he said.

Any prolonged crackdown by Canada’s second-biggest trading partner on shipments of key products like soybeans and canola could deliver a blow to the national economy.

New data released Thursday from Statistics Canada showed overall exports of canola fell 14.7 per cent in April after China started turning away Canadian canola seed.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s spokesman said it’s not enough for Trudeau to be concerned because he’s not a casual observer when it comes to the dispute with China.

“He needs to actually do something,” Brock Harrison wrote in an email Thursday.

“Mr. Scheer has on several occasions urged him to take concrete steps to respond to China’s actions against Canada and send a message that Canada won’t be pushed around. He has refused to act.”

The federal government says it has tried unsuccessfully to send a delegation of inspectors to China to examine Chinese evidence of pests in canola shipments. Canada has also been unable to schedule high-level engagements on the matter despite multiple efforts.

Bibeau told MPs Thursday that Canadian scientists finally had a conversation Wednesday night with Chinese customs officials about their canola concerns.

“They agreed to have more sustained discussions, telephone conferences on the subject — and they did not close the door to the delegation,” she said. “We are still asking for that, but the conversation has been re-activated and yesterday we could feel that we were at a different level … This is encouraging.”

Earlier this week, China’s ambassador to Canada said in an interview that Chinese officials investigated Canadian canola based on regulatory and scientific principles, and provided “concrete” documents to Canada to justify their concerns.

Lu Shaye added that the relevant Chinese departments no longer maintained contact with their Canadian counterparts, suggesting the matter was closed.

—Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press


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Agriculture

China-Canada differences go beyond Beijing’s critical, outgoing envoy: Carr

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OTTAWA — Canada’s trade minister is downplaying the forthcoming departure of China’s outspoken envoy to Ottawa, saying differences between the countries stretch beyond anything at the ambassador’s level.

In an interview Wednesday, Jim Carr said the federal government is awaiting China’s decision on its replacement for outgoing ambassador Lu Shaye, who has had harsh words for Canada during a tenure that began in 2017.

“I don’t think that personalities are what would be at the centre of the issue here,” Carr said when asked about Lu’s past criticisms.

“The job of the ambassador is to express the view of his government. I would only assume that whatever is being spoken by the Chinese ambassador to Canada has the full support of the government, so this is an issue that goes beyond the ambassadorial level.”

Sources say Lu, who appeared to be more comfortable speaking French than English, will leave his Ottawa post in the coming weeks for a new position in Paris. Lu, 54, has also served as China’s ambassador to Senegal and as a counsellor for its foreign service in France, according to a biography on the embassy’s website.

His departure comes at a time, as Lu himself described in an interview Tuesday, of “serious difficulties” between the two countries.

Canada’s relationship with its second-biggest trading partner has deteriorated rapidly since the December arrest of a senior Huawei executive in Vancouver following an extradition request by the United States.

China was outraged by the arrest of Meng Wanzhou and has since detained two Canadians on allegations of espionage, sentenced two Canadians to death for drug-related convictions and blocked key agricultural shipments such as canola.

Lu has used strong words when talking about the relationship — for example, he has called Meng’s arrest the “backstabbing” of a friend and evidence of white supremacism.

He also warned of unspecified “repercussions” if the federal government bars Huawei from selling equipment to build a next-generation 5G wireless network in Canada.

Lu was critical of Canada before Meng’s arrest. Soon after arriving in Canada, Lu said he was struck by the negative view of China that he saw taking shape. In a 2017 interview, he blamed the Canadian media for disseminating a negative portrait of his country that depicted it as an abuser of human rights and of lacking democracy.

He said Canadian politicians sometimes had to “bow before media.”

In Lu’s interview Tuesday with The Canadian Press, he said China was not to blame for the ongoing dispute.

“But the Chinese government is waiting to make a joint effort with the Canadian side and meet each other halfway,” he said without specifying the necessary steps toward a resolution.

When asked about the possibility of freeing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — the Canadians detained in China on espionage charges — Lu said their fates are in the hands of Chinese authorities. On China’s rejection of Canadian canola imports over Chinese allegations of pests, he considers the matter closed.

Carr said the Liberal government still hopes to solve the bilateral differences by engaging China on many levels, not just through an ambassador.

“We will reach out to whomever is in that place and make the same arguments to him or her that we’re making now,” Carr said before leaving for Japan on a trade mission to find new markets for Canadian products, including canola.

Carr said Canada is still keen to send government inspectors to China to explore evidence of pests in the canola shipments. But, he added, China has not invited Canadian experts to do so, and there has been no high-level engagement on the matter despite Canada’s efforts.

This week, China increased inspections of Canadian pork products over its concerns about smuggling and African swine fever — an illness that can be devastating among pigs. It came in addition to previously stated Chinese complaints over the labelling of Canadian pork.

Asked Wednesday if the inspections were a sign the dispute had reached a new level, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau declined to speculate and said: “I don’t want to escalate the situation.”

Word of Lu’s departure comes at a time when Canada does not have an ambassador in Beijing. Last winter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fired Canada’s ambassador, John McCallum, for going off-script in the government’s efforts to win the release of Kovrig and Spavor. Before his posting to Beijing, McCallum was a longtime Liberal MP and cabinet minister.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, who is now vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said Lu’s departure presents an opportunity to reset the relationship.

“We need to find a way to engage,” he said. “Not having ambassadors who are reliable or trusted is a major handicap.”

Lu did a good job of publicly reflecting the Chinese government’s positions and “seemed to take relish in putting it to us,” Robertson added.

“His words aggravated the situation. Behind closed doors ambassadors are also expected to find solutions and try to nuance divisions. Here I see no evidence of serious effort by Lu Shaye.”

Andy Blatchford and Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

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