Grocery chain Sobeys is rolling out its annual price freeze on thousands of food items over the holiday season, and expanding it more than usual in the face of heightened consumer concern about inflation.
It’s customary for grocery chains to hold prices steady as much as possible during the busy holiday season, but Nova Scotia-based Empire Company — which owns Sobeys, FreshCo, Foodland, Farm Boy, Longo’s and Safeway — says it is taking that policy one step further this year to include more items.
“Typically, we would hold prices on approximately 90 per cent of packaged products during this time,” spokesperson Andrew Walker told CBC News in a statement.
This year, the chain says the “totality” of its packaged goods offerings will see prices held at their November 2023 price until at least January. That’s about 20,000 products, all told, and it includes the cancellation of planned price increases on about 1,700 items.
“This action will remain in place regardless of any internal or external conditions that might cause those prices to go up,” Walker said.
Efforts to stabilize prices
Walker confirmed the news, which was first reported by the Toronto Star.
He added that the chain has “significant and meaningful plans in development to continue to help stabilize food prices past February,” but declined to offer specifics.
More than a month ago, Canada’s Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne teased at a press conference that the major grocery chains were about to announce plans to “stablize” food prices “within days,” but none of the chains have announced anything concrete in the five weeks since that pronouncement.
“Empire has taken Minister Champagne’s and Canadian’s concerns seriously and we have done everything possible as requested by the Minister in the mid-September meeting with grocers,” Empire said in its statement.
Limited price freezes are a fairly common occurrence in the industry over the holiday season. Last year, No Frills made headlines by freezing prices on its No Name products in a move that experts told CBC News at the time was more of a public relations strategy than a real policy shift.
Tyler McCann, managing director of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, says the moves by retailers have more to do with global inflationary forces easing than any pressure from government.
“This has a lot more to do with the supply chain working itself out than anything the Government of Canada has done recently,” he told CBC News in an interview.
While he gives Empire credit for genuinely expanding its typical price freeze beyond what they would normally have done by including products outside of the in-house brand names it controls, he cautions that some sort of price freeze this time of year is industry standard, whether the companies used to announce it or not.
“This time of year, historically, we normally see retailers freeze prices on some products. They would have just done that as part of their operations, a business decision,” he said. “But given the sensitivity around pricing and increases, we’ve seen more companies being more public with practices they’ve already been doing.”
The move by Empire comes on the same day that Statistics Canada released its latest consumer price index.
The data shows the inflation rate on food decelerated to an annual pace of 5.4 per cent. That’s down from 5.5 per cent the month before, but still well ahead of the 3.1 per cent overall inflation rate.
“Food is still getting more expensive but the pressure on the gas pedal is coming off,” McCann said. “The numbers going in the right direction.”