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Buying more: grocery store giant in Burnaby sees profits surge amid COVID-19

People are shopping less but buying more at one time

People’s shopping habits might have changed, but they still need food.

That’s meant a boost in profits for the company that owns Safeway stores in Burnaby.

Empire Company Ltd. recorded a surge in sales in its most recent quarter as the pandemic continued to impact how Canadians shop for food, the grocery chain that owns Sobeys said Wednesday. 

Canadians shopped less frequently and purchased more when they did in the company's third quarter, pushing profit to $176.3 million from $120.5 million a year earlier, the retailer said.

Customers gravitated towards one-stop-shop grocery stores that met all their household needs and are increasingly buying food online, Empire said. 

Those trends helped the grocery chain bolster its "underlying strength" including improvements in market share and gross margin, Empire president and CEO Michael Medline said.

Sobeys has been one of the few companies in Burnaby that have been transparent in disclosing COVID-19 cases involving staff.

The company also made progress in its operational and merchandising execution, which he said is "leaps and bounds" ahead of where it was four years ago.

"I attribute our success to our focus and discipline to execute against our strategy, while living our values," Medline said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, Empire said the jump in sales in the quarter was also driven by the expansion of its FreshCo banner in Western Canada and Farm Boy banner in Ontario. 

The gains were partially offset by lower fuel sales and temporary store closures in Western Canada pending conversion to FreshCo.

Empire's e-commerce businesses reported sales growth of 315 per cent in the third quarter compared with the prior year amid ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns or restrictions across the country for the quarter ended Jan. 30.

The retailer's largely conventional store base benefited from "weekly main shop" consumer behaviour that has become the norm since early March 2020, RBC Dominion Securities Inc. analyst Irene Nattel said in a note to clients.

This was particularly the case during pandemic lockdowns like those in place post-Christmas, she said. 

  • With additional reporting by the Canadian Press