No Need for Panic Buying, Say Nunavut Grocers

March 20, 2020 Updated: March 20, 2020

Nunavut’s two main grocers are saying that sales are up since the territory started to go into COVID-19 lockdown, but they continue to be well-stocked.

“Even though we’re seeing an increase of sales, there is enough supply,” said Alex Yeo, the president of Canadian retail for the North West Co. “Even in the North.”

Duane Wilson, the vice-president of stakeholder relations for Arctic Cooperatives Ltd., said that stores in the North are actually in a better position right now than many in southern Canada, because they use sealifts to order non-perishable goods.

Co-op stores bring in a year’s worth of supply by ship, to provide the best value, he said.

So if people in Iqaluit are stocking up on toilet paper, for example, “unless the actual consumption in toilet paper changes dramatically, we’re just seeing a situation where they’re buying it early and there should be no problem at all.”

But Wilson said that some things are being bought more rapidly and used at a higher rate, like sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer. Those things are in short supply across the board right now.

“So how fast we can get it back in inventory is really going to be dependent on the flow of product to the wholesalers, which is probably a little less clear,” he said.

Both Yeo and Wilson said that the COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly. “Every half-day it’s different,” Wilson said.

And both say that they are confident that their supply chain is secure right now, but this flow of goods does depend on airlines delivering cargo.

If passenger services are stopped to prevent the spread of COVID-19, that’s fine, Wilson said, because they still do delivery on freighter-only aircraft.

“That’s something we can adapt to easily and quickly,” he said.

It would be a problem if something disrupted air travel altogether—for instance, if weather reports stopped, runways weren’t being cleared, or airports stop operating.

“Well, that’s a whole different thing, because every community is going to be solely relying on what’s available in the community,” Wilson said.

“Because there’s sealift inventory in communities, the primary pain point would be perishables. We can’t stock up on those because the notion of putting a few pallets of milk in the corner in case you need it, that’s not a practical response.”

Wilson said that if supply dried up in one part of the country, ACL would be resourceful and fill orders somewhere else.

Both Yeo and Wilson said that they’re working to keep Nunavut stores stocked up and customers safe. To that end, the North West Co. is figuring out how it can deliver groceries to elders, vulnerable people, and those under quarantine, for no extra fee.

Wilson said the Arctic Ventures Marketplace store in Iqaluit will have only elders and other vulnerable people shop at the beginning of each day, from eight to nine a.m., so they aren’t exposed to other people, and said that co-ops in other communities that have capacity are also talking about delivering goods locally.

He said the ACL is postponing its annual general meeting, which was scheduled for the end of April, to prevent people from contracting COVID-19 and bringing it back to their communities.

“We need to be thinking ahead of what we can control, and continuing to being responsible and nimble to the changes we can’t control,” he said.

The North West Co. said in a news release on March 16 that it’s freezing its prices for 60 days.

But Yeo clarified in a phone interview that if the price of something they buy increases, or if the cost of shipping rises, that will be reflected in increased prices in the store.

“One thing we can assure our customers,” Yeo said, “is that we’re not here to take advantage of them.”

The North West Co. has 21 grocery stores across Nunavut, and there are 23 community-run co-ops in the territory as well as Arctic Ventures Marketplace in Iqaluit, which is run directly by ACL.

Arctic Fresh, an online grocery store, says it aims to fight northern food insecurity, and also says it’s seeing a big increase in demand.

Speaking over the phone from Igloolik, Merlyn Recinos of Arctic Fresh said that since March 11, orders have doubled.

He said that right now, they probably have enough inventory to last another week, and they’re putting in more orders. “We feel confident that we are able to continue at this capacity,” he said.

Arctic Fresh serves all of Baffin Island. Recinos said they’d like to expand, but it depends on the reliability of the airlines, which he said are currently not meeting their needs to operate outside of Baffin Island.

Meagan Deuling, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Nunatsiaq News