Grocery chain's Alberta box a boost for local food-product companies

·3 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic brought Tamara Whitton's cotton candy business to a standstill in March; within just two days, the cotton candy maker lost every order on her books.

Yet despite the cancellation of scores of festivals and fairs, where cotton candy is typically sold, Whitton's business has thrived during the pandemic.

Her retail store in Fort Saskatchewan saw record walk-in traffic during the holiday season and customers bought containers of her cotton candy for drive-by birthday celebrations and virtual parties.

Whitton said getting her cotton candy — available in a staggering 96 flavours — on major grocery store shelves helped boost the business during the past year, but so did the product's inclusion in a cardboard box packed with local items.

In late October, Sobeys introduced The Alberta Box, a package of 22 locally-produced products for $49.99. Along with Whitton's gummy-bear-flavoured cotton candy, boxes included steak spice from Canmore, craft soda from Crowsnest Pass, gluten-free oatmeal from Calgary, energy bars from High River, and other items.

Submitted by Gary Hughes
Submitted by Gary Hughes

Alberta business owners whose products were included in the box say it was not a big money-maker for them — they provided smaller versions of their products to the company — but the local boxes did help spread awareness of their brands across the province.

"Any time when you're getting a product into people's hands, that's advertising," said Whitton, who has received new customers as a result of the box.

Other local businesses owners also appreciated being included.

"If I gained 25 per cent of the people that purchased those, I would be very happy with that," said Michael Heinen, sales manager for Gramma Bee's Honey in Sturgeon County.

For Maureen Obrigewitch, who owns Souptacular Soups in St. Albert, getting her peas and barley soup into smaller communities via the box was a great opportunity.

"That's what really appealed to us," she said.

Submitted by Maureen Obrigewitch
Submitted by Maureen Obrigewitch

People who received the box as a gift and tried her soup have been emailing her with positive reviews, she said.

Gary Hughes, a development manager for Sobeys, manages merchandise for 149 Sobeys, Safeway and IGA stores in Alberta.

To assemble the box, he compared products from the several hundred Alberta suppliers he has relationships with and selected items that were either unique or "highly consumable."

"The intent is to drive more business for some of these local companies," he told CBC Edmonton's Adrienne Pan.

The box also helped grocery stores nudge customers to try new products.

Pre-pandemic, suppliers were encouraged to offer samples in stores.

"That's not really an option right now," Hughes said.

Submitted by Gary Hughes
Submitted by Gary Hughes

The boxes are 90 per cent sold out, but the company is working on a spring version and plans to continue releasing them seasonally.

Many business and municipal leaders, including Edmonton mayor Don Iveson, have encouraged Albertans to buy local in recent months.

Kyle Murray, a marketing professor at the University of Alberta, said the movement started long before the pandemic.

"Part of the reason you're seeing it crack grocery store shelves is simply because of demand," he said.

Grocery stores, which operate with thin profit margins, can use unique, local merchandise as a way of drawing more customers to stores, he added.

Heinen said he suspects people are spending a little more on local products now because they are saving money they would have otherwise spent in bars and restaurants.

Whether the boxes continue to be a fixture in stores or not, multiple business owners included in the Sobeys box said they think the pandemic is changing the way Albertans shop.

Heinen used his own product — raw honey — as an example.

"You get those people who are now trying it because they have that extra dollar or two to buy something local and they realize, 'Hey, this tastes better. Why don't I keep doing this?'"