If the Canadian grocers are scared of Whole Foods Market (WFM.O) or Amazon.com (AMZN.O), they certainly haven’t been showing it.
Not a single reference to either entity can be found in financial reports and conference call transcripts dating back two years from Loblaw (L.TO), Metro (MRU.TO) and Sobeys’ parent company, Empire Co. (EMPa.TO). In spite of Whole Foods’ miniscule footprint in Canada, where it boasts only 13 locations, the trio of incumbents saw their share prices take a haircut Friday in the wake of Amazon’s US$13.7-billion all-cash takeover of the niche grocer.
The Canadian grocers have seemingly had bigger fish to fry in recent quarters, as food deflation stemming from intense competition takes centre stage for the trio, rendering Whole Foods and its ilk a back-burner issue at best. Wal-Mart in particular has been a thorn is the side of the incumbent players, taking a slash-and-burn approach to prices in an aggressive bid to gain market share.
While Whole Foods’ Canadian store count is relatively paltry in comparison to the big players, strategy advisor Mark Satov of Satov Consultants thinks it’s inadvisable to sleep on the ambitions of Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos. In an interview on BNN, Satov said the retailing giant’s financial heft and growth ambitions lead him to believe this won’t be Amazon’s only foray into the grocery space, merely its first.
“My biggest prediction about this is that they are then going to buy a mid-market grocer, because they are not going to satisfy their ambitions for grocery by buying a high-end, niche-y player,” he said. “If it goes well, then they try to move to a larger player, a bit more mid-market.”
While Amazon made its name through digital retailing, Satov thinks there will be a cap to online grocery retailing. He said he expects the battle will ultimately be fought through the in-store experience, an area where both Whole Foods and Loblaw have been investing heavily.
“You go for a portion of your shopping [at Whole Foods,] and you love the experience, and you’re not going to love the experience as much online,” he said. “It’s like a lot of things in retail. Retail is bifurcating where you have the low-end and the online and the high end. And one of the things you can do on the high-end is make sure that it’s worth the trip. Loblaw is certainly investing in that.”