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COVID-19 roundup: Sobeys expands online grocery-delivery service with GTA launch of Voilà

A Sobeys grocery store is seen in Halifax in September 2014. The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan
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It’s day 104 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 101,568 as of publication time, up 231 since yesterday—a 27 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of 317 new cases. At its peak on May 3, the seven-day average was 1,603 new cases a day. 

Today marks 103 days since the last MLB, NBA, NFL or NHL game—the longest the world has gone without a professional North American Big Four sporting event since 1918.

The robot grocers have arrived: Empire launched the online grocery-delivery platform Voilà by Sobeys Monday for customers in the Greater Toronto Area, expediting its plans due to a pandemic-fuelled surge in online grocery shopping. The grocery giant has hired 140 delivery staff instead of the 40 planned, and has already placed a second order for 100 delivery vans. Residents in Vaughan, Ont. will be the first to access the service, which also offers Farm Boy and Well.ca products, as they are closest to Sobeys’ $100-million automated warehouse built with British e-grocer Ocado’s technology. Delivery through Voilà is guaranteed within an hour. 

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COVID-19 “accelerated e-commerce grocery adoption to a level that we hadn’t been expecting for three years,” Sarah Joyce, Empire senior vice-president of e-commerce, told The Logic. “We thought this was an opportunity … to prepare to grow faster than we had originally anticipated.” The Sobeys parent company had rushed testing in April, noting “exponential growth” in online sales. 

This isn’t the first Canadian e-commerce service to be rushed to launch because of the pandemic. Last month, The Logic reported that Loblaw had expedited the launch of a next-day meal-kit delivery service, also citing a significant increase in online revenues and a general change in consumer behaviour. 

Voilà represents the first effort by a Canadian grocery to offer a complete online grocery-delivery service, according to Sylvain Charlebois, a Dalhousie University professor of food distribution. “They’re setting a new benchmark for the industry,” he told The Logic, noting that the service will be able to deliver orders more accurately, due to the automated warehouse, has kept delivery costs much lower than its competitors and guaranteed a one-hour delivery time. 

Charlebois said it made sense for Sobeys to launch at a greater scale than planned because, being first, it “can create habits” and “build loyalty.” According to a survey he conducted last month, 22 per cent of Canadians have said they intend to order groceries online on a regular basis post-COVID-19. 

“Back in 2017, when Amazon acquired Whole Foods, that was a wake-up call for our grocers. They saw e-commerce as an opportunity to provide convenience for the first time,” Charlebois said. “What nobody saw coming is that e-commerce would become a safe option.” 

In the markets: All major North American indices closed up despite a global surge in COVID-19 cases and U.S. homes sales dropping 9.7 per cent in May, above the consensus economist estimate of 8.8 per cent. A wide range of stocks are driving the rally, a departure from the beginning of the post-March rally, when much of the growth came from tech stocks. The Canadian dollar rose 0.6 per cent in late afternoon trading to reach 73.88 cents U.S. 

Newly minted Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem repeated his comments from last week that the Canadian economy will take a long time to recover. He also reiterated a promise to purchase at least $5 billion of government bonds a week, and raised concerns about inflation falling as spending drops despite businesses reopening. Recently departed Bank of England governor Mark Carney, who previously led Canada’s central bank, wants increased private and public investment to combat the spending drop. Canadian consumer confidence increased to 45.4 last week, up from 42.9 the week prior. That’s the largest weekly gain since 2013, but still well below the 57 average from the year prior to the pandemic. 

“The greatest threat we face now is not the virus itself, it’s the lack of global solidarity and global leadership. We cannot defeat this pandemic with a divided world”: With Sunday, World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned against “politicizing” the pandemic as Sunday saw the largest single-day increase in global coronavirus cases.

Cross-country checkup: Toronto and Peel Region in Southern Ontario will be able to move into Stage 2 of their reopening on Wednesday, which will see restaurant patios, hair salons, shopping malls and swimming pools reopen. Windsor-Essex will remain in Stage 1 for at least another week. Restaurants in the greater Montreal and Joliette areas are allowed to reopen starting today; residents can now also join the rest of Quebec in participating in gatherings of up to 10 people from three households. Across the province, day camps, gyms, arenas, cinemas, concert venues and places of worship can reopen with 50-person capacities. In Saskatchewan, camping in national parks is allowed by reservation; day camps can proceed and non-contact outdoor sports can resume. Manitoba is lifting its half-capacity rule for restaurants and bars, though it’s still requiring tables to be two metres apart or equipped with physical barriers. Child care and retail stores can resume normal operations, and travellers from other Western provinces, northern territories and Northwestern Ontario no longer have to isolate for 14 days upon entering Manitoba. Meanwhile, half of Chinese Canadians said they have been called names or insulted because of the pandemic, and 43 per cent said they have been threatened or intimidated, according to an Angus Reid survey. Sixty-four per cent said North American news coverage of the coronavirus has led to negative views of Chinese people in Canada. 

Bay Street to Main Street: Canada’s economy may have already started to recover, but is still on track to shrink 8.2 per cent this year, according to a report from the Conference Board of Canada. That’s more pessimistic than the major banks’ projection of a 5.9 to 7.5 per cent contraction, but about on track with the OECD’s estimate of an eight per cent contraction. While the OECD report emphasized the potential for the worst being yet to come, the Conference Board’s was more upbeat. Despite its projected second-quarter unemployment rate of 13.7 per cent, it said the addition of around 300,000 jobs in May and lifting of government restrictions indicate the labour market is recovering. It estimates 1.3 million jobs will be created in the third quarter, dropping unemployment to 10.5 per cent—if, and only if, there isn’t a rise in cases leading to a second round of lockdowns. 

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada will not reopen borders quickly, pushing back against a call by 27 of the country’s most powerful CEOs to lift travel restrictions. 
  • Vancouver-based fintech Bench has hired more people than it laid off in March. Its business was initially hit hard by the pandemic, but the firm signed up 147 new clients in the last week of May alone as it helped firms access the U.S. Paycheck Protection Program. 
  • Canadian National Railway expects consumer-product growth and a pivot from China to other countries in Asia to revive traffic on its railines in Eastern Canada. 
  • Engineering firms are having trouble hiring as human resources departments struggle to recruit and onboard employees remotely. 

Trace me on my cellphone: Premier Blaine Higgs said on Friday that the provincial government had been working with the University of New Brunswick to create a contact-tracing app that would require Google and Apple’s API—a plan that has been disrupted by the federal government’s own app. The two tech giants have limited the usage of their technology to one app per country. Higgs said Ottawa’s decision was “concerning,” given “all the great work that our people have done internally here.” Elsewhere, the University of Guelph is working on an app that uses wireless technology and machine learning. Some app developers in the U.K. are claiming the government blocked rival apps and treated them like “the enemy.” 

In the lab: The government of Alberta has invested $4 million in a virtual drug treatment program. U.K. scientists are testing a “no-swab” saliva coronavirus test that lets people collect their own samples at home by spitting into a pot; the trial includes over 14,000 people. Gilead Sciences CEO Daniel O’Day said in an open letter the company would start testing an inhaled version of the antiviral drug remdesivir—the first effective coronavirus treatment—in August. The drug is currently given as an intravenous infusion, which limits its use to the hospital setting. If remdesivir is an effective inhaler, it “could have significant implications in helping to stem the tide of the pandemic,” O’Day wrote. Dr. David Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy on COVID-19, believes it will take two and a half years for “a vaccine for everybody in the world.” He added, “I would love it to be proved wrong.”

Drinking from the firehose: 

  • Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said the company is prepared to weather another economic downturn in the event of a second COVID-19 wave, thanks to substantial cost-cutting in recent months. It could cut spending on Amazon Web Services amid its newfound frugality. The company, meanwhile, is waiting for markets to stabilize before resuming plans to go public, but Chesky didn’t rule out a 2020 IPO. 
  • Hotels are seeing a surge in bookings from people renting rooms as office spaces during the day. Rental platform HotelsByDay, for instance, has seen a 900 per cent increase in demand for daytime space in the past two months. 
  • Google’s U.S. ad revenue is expected to decline in 2020, according to eMarketer, marking the first annual dip since the modelling firm began tracking the company in 2008. 
  • Concert promoter Live Nation announced its first-ever drive-in concert series scheduled for July in the U.S. The tour, to be headlined by Brad Paisley, follows policy changes that put the onus on artists in the event of cancelled events, as the company grapples with the impact of the pandemic.
  • A Morgan Stanley analysis predicts the post-COVID-19 economy will see faster 5G adoption, more single-family homes, less construction and more “alternative diets.”

Around the world: Some countries heralded for their coronavirus strategies are grappling with renewed outbreaks. South Korea said it is experiencing a second wave of the coronavirus in and around Seoul. Germany is trying to contain an outbreak of the coronavirus linked to a large slaughterhouse where over 1,300 people have tested positive for COVID-19; the county’s closely watched “R” rate has jumped to 2.88, which means out of 100 infected people, 288 more will get the virus. Australia extended its state of emergency in Victoria after a surge in cases.

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Meanwhile, hospitals across Europe are training a reserve “health-care army” in preparation for a second wave. India reported a record number of new single-day coronavirus cases on Sunday as the Delhi government readies to transform 25 luxury hotels into COVID-19 care centres. The U.K. will tighten takeover laws to ensure British businesses tackling the pandemic are less susceptible to hostile foreign takeovers. African countries have come together to establish an online platform akin to eBay or Amazon for COVID-19 test kits, protective equipment and any vaccines. Tourists can fly to Dubai from July 7. Beijing is projecting a “cliff-like” drop in cases this week. 

Scream into the void: This app offers you an outlet.

* We’re emphasizing new cases, rather than running totals, because “flattening the curve” is when each day’s new cases are fewer than those of the previous day. The percentage increase is determined based on how today’s cases compare to a rolling seven-day prior average.

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