Thank you, Chair.
As you've said, my name is Gary Sands. I'm the senior vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers. On behalf of the CFIG, I want to thank the committee for the invitation for us to participate in your hearings this afternoon.
I'll give you just a quick synopsis of our association. We represent independent grocers across the country. Independent grocers account for about $13 billion in sales in Canada. There are approximately 6,900 independent grocery stores across the country.
In particular, I want to draw your attention to the fact that our members serve a myriad of communities in this country that are rural and sometimes remote and also supply indigenous communities. As such, independent grocers are a critical linchpin in ensuring food security for much of the country.
Notwithstanding that, independent grocers compete on a landscape that is overly consolidated at the retail level. At the same time, grocery retail operates on overall margins of an average 1.5% for both chains and independents. Yet within that context, you should note that many of the costs absorbed by retail grocers in the case of the large chains are pushed off their books and onto the supplier community.
Of course, the imposition of fees, surcharges, penalties or invoice reductions—whatever the catchphrase of the month is—poses a huge burden on the rest of the food supply chain. Suppliers argue that this also—and I quote from one of their briefs—“stands as a major hurdle to expansion and growth”.
We agree with the suppliers on that point, but I would also point out that this puts the independent retail grocers in all those communities at a decided competitive disadvantage, in that the plethora of costs normally associated with running a grocery store in the case of the independents are borne by them entirely, so it is natural that for many groups in the agri-food sector there has been alignment around conveying to government that we have a problem and we need to find a solution.
Let me also be clear, though, that over the years independents have also encountered a lack of fair dealing on the part of some suppliers. Refusals to provide fair supply or fair pricing were encountered pre-COVID, during COVID and will continue post-COVID unless we begin, together, to find reasonable responses that can provide a course correction for our agri-food industry.
To ensure that we maintain and indeed enhance the stability and strength of our value chain, it is imperative that all governments, federal and provincial, turn their attention to identifying barriers. If what we have all heard over the past year from governments—that we are all in this together—is sincere, then together we need to turn our attention to the imbalances of the industry and the marketplace.
The view of the CFIG is that the solution to the goals identified by this committee lies in developing a grocery code of conduct. I want to make a point here of stressing that we are saying a “grocery code”, not a retail code, as some in the supply chain are wont to do.
Have independent grocers encountered problems with suppliers over the years? As I said previously, you bet we have. The principles that many groups in the agri-food industry are espousing as being required as practices that the retail chains should follow should also apply to them. Principles around fair dealing should not be selectively and subjectively written and applied to just one part of the supply chain. I would be fascinated to hear from any organizations representing suppliers as to why that should not be the case.
When our members are told by suppliers that they will not be supplied with products because suppliers have hit their targets with some chains, that is not fair. In turn, lack of fair supply is also, for many communities, an issue of food security. Our members are tired of sometimes paying more for mainstream products that are sold in chains for less than the independents themselves have to pay as the cost determined by the supplier, and then being told by sales reps many times that they've hit their sales quotas with the chains, so no price negotiation is possible. This is not by any means always due to the chains enjoying a large-scale advantage. Suppliers could refuse to play in that sandbox, and a couple have.
Even in the supply-managed sectors of the agri-food chain, there have been issues around securing fair access. I recall one instance in the early months of the pandemic when we received letters from egg producers, the federal Minister of Agriculture and a couple of provincial ministers—from B.C. and Ontario—asking us to encourage our members not to limit supplies of eggs purchased by customers. Our response was to send back pictures that our members had sent us of empty store shelves where the eggs should be.
I'm not singling out the egg producers. This kind of thing happened in other areas. I'm just using it to illustrate that what the producers are saying to governments and what our members are seeing are two different things.
The positive for us, out of those kinds of examples, is that there has been a heightened awareness and understanding of the challenges our members face by both government and many other sectors in the supply chain.
There is one key point I want this committee to understand about independent grocers: We buy local, support local community initiatives, and we hire local, because we are local. We live in the communities we serve. Independents can also play a role in increasing capacity, because, as they continue to remind producers and processors, they happily will act as incubators to test new products and innovations in-store.
Our association also runs the two largest retail grocery trade shows and conferences in Canada. Working with the Ontario government, through those venues, we have significantly enhanced buying opportunities, interprovincially as well, for Canada's small and medium-sized suppliers and retailers.
In closing, we commend Ottawa, the provinces and the territories for establishing a working group to review issues in this industry and to recommend a course of action. The co-chairs of this FPT working group have been responsive and collaborative, and are genuinely interested in finding solutions.
If we can develop a grocery code of conduct, that will be a positive development and, I would suggest, a generational change for our food industry. However, that code should be a made-in-Canada code—not one, for example, modelled on the U.K. code, but one that is balanced, applies to all, and benefits all: retailers, suppliers, wholesalers, processors and farmers.
It will not mean that government should be running a retail store or any other part of the supply chain, nor has it in other countries with a code of conduct. It also will not, as some suggest, level the playing field. The level of consolidation in Canada already makes that impossible. What our members and the communities they serve want is the right to be able to at least stay on that playing field.
Thank you for your attention. I hope I hit the seven and a half minutes.