How lowering grocery prices will help protect everyone

It’s hard to go five feet without having a conversation about skyrocketing prices and inflation these days. From groceries to gas to rent, Canadians continue to feel the squeeze everywhere.

A recent poll by Maru Public Opinion shows that a record 70% of Canadians believe the economy is on the wrong track. That same data shows a rising number of Canadians expressing concern over their ability to make ends meet, even among high-income earners.

All that anxiety is playing out in grocery stores and other retail environments.

Once the last remnant of gathering spaces during the pandemic, grocery stores have become ground zero for what the Retail Council of Canada describes as daily reports of violent theft.

“Nowadays, we hear from retailers daily about the use of violence and weapons being used in the commission of crime,” reports Executive Advisor for the Retail Council of Canada, Rui Rodrigues. “If I go back four years, that might have occurred once a quarter,” adds Rodrigues.

That data will not come as a surprise to Local 401 members.

In a survey conducted in late 2022, 75% of UFCW retail members indicated that customers had become more rude, aggressive, and even abusive toward them. Lining up with Rodrigues’ analysis, a shocking number of those members also reported experiencing violent behavior at work.

As CNN notes, inflation and the currently unmanageable cost of goods are major contributors to retail theft and the environment with which retail workers are grappling.

Among the triggers for shoplifters is inflation. Although inflation is cooling — slowly — US prices are still on the rise, even after a two-year slog of consumers enduring painfully high prices on everything they need to sustain themselves and their families.

Economic distress is amplified on budget-strapped consumers during inflationary periods, said Burt Flickinger, retail expert and managing director of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group.

“Millions of Americans can’t afford to fully buy their groceries or a full tank of gas, pay for public transportation, their home bills or pay their credit card debt,” he said.

UFCW Local 401 has been actively warning about the negative impacts of skyrocketing grocery prices on both employees and customers.

During Safeway Wage Reopener negotiations over the summer, the local union launched an advertising campaign that featured actual Safeway workers talking about the challenges they faced. Affordability and not being able to afford to shop where they work were major themes of the ad.

Via the campaign, an astonishing 98% of Safeway customers also indicated that they felt prices in the stores were too high.

Consequently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s September call for Canadian grocers to reduce and stabilize food prices was welcome news for many Canadians. Recently, those companies provided initial ideas to comply with the federal government’s directive that includes aggressive discounting on key items for Canadian households.

“I’ve said it before and I will say it again, I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime. For the Canadian head of state to be commenting on grocery prices and calling on grocers to get those prices under control has simply never happened before,” said UFCW Local 401 President Thomas Hesse. “Interestingly, Prime Minister Trudeau’s demands echo those our local union and members have been making for some time. Working families need real and tangible relief from this affordability crisis, and providing it will do a world of good on multiple fronts.”

Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne has noted that the initial ideas presented by the country’s major grocers, “has spurred a more competitive dynamic between the big five.” Lack of industry competition was a glaring hole identified by the Competition Bureau of Canada report Canada Needs More Grocery Competition.

All of which stands to do a great deal more to address the country’s affordability crisis than incessant interest rate hikes by the Bank of Canada have achieved. In fact, a July Angus Reid poll revealed that many Canadians have identified those measures as a major factor in their struggles.

Alternatively, meaningful savings on grocery bills and forcing Canadian grocers to legitimately compete with one another may finally ease pressure in a fashion that reduces anxieties, makes life more affordable, and stabilizes retail environments for workers and customers alike.

Local 401 members will continue pushing for meaningful change in retail environments and all workplaces, particularly as their union prepares for major negotiations campaigns starting in 2025.