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More flour, fewer flowers: Here’s what Canadians have been buying during the pandemic

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After an initial flurry of panic buying at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Canadians have slowed down their spending at grocery stores a little, but sales in April were still far above normal levels in a variety of product categories, a new report from Statistics Canada shows.

Sales at Canadian grocery stores were more than 40 per cent above last year’s level for both the second and third weeks of March, as most of the country went into lockdown and millions of Canadians stockpiled supplies to shelter in place for an extended period.

While sales since then have come down from those highs, they were still running more than 10 per cent above normal levels through to the end of the month.

And it’s clear from the numbers that Canadians aren’t panic buying everything with quite the same level of zeal.

The report says bathroom tissue sales moderated, but were still 81 per cent higher in the week of April 11 than they were the same week last year. That’s down from the 288 per cent surge seen in the middle of March.

Paper towel sales are following a similar trajectory, up 227 per cent in the initial week of lockdowns, to being up by just 49 per cent a month later.

Sales of hand sanitizer were up 345 per cent during the week of April 11 compared with the same week a year earlier, while sales of masks and gloves were up 114 per cent and sales of soap were up 68 per cent.

With going out to a restaurant or bar no longer an option, grocery store sales of alcohol were up 76 per cent in the third week of April, suggesting Canadians were buying more products than usual “for diversion and comfort” inside their home, the report says. Sales of home coffee filters were up 80 per cent compared to last year’s level.

The well documented surge in demand for flour has seen some producers struggling to keep up, as they can’t seem to keep it on the shelves. Flour sales rose by more than 200 per cent in the second and third weeks of March, and in the weeks since they have remained at almost double their normal level.

Some sales are down

But not everything is seeing higher sales. Statistics Canada says sales of cold remedies were down 11 per cent year over year and sales of infant formula were 15 per cent lower than the same week of 2019.

Another product seeing fewer sales was cut flowers. Typically, Easter sees a spike in those purchases, but not this year — sales were down by 47 per cent from last year’s level. 

“While many Canadians celebrated Easter, they seem to have celebrated at home in small numbers, or virtually, while in-person exchanges of flowers were trimmed,” the data agency said.

Flower sales seem to suggest Canadians are less interested in beauty for beauty’s sake during the pandemic, and that’s a trend that seems to be extending into the personal grooming space as well.

“Year-over-year, purchases of cosmetics dropped 44 per cent and hair styling and cutting supplies fell 34 per cent in the week ending March 28,” the report says.

Within the hair-care sector, Canadians don’t seem to be enjoying getting back to their roots, as sales of hair-colouring products rose 75 per cent in the week of April 11. However, sales of cutting and styling supplies fell 33 per cent below last year’s level.

Another product category that saw a surge was family planning products. Pregnancy tests and condoms were flying off the shelves for the first few weeks of March, but by April sales had gone back to more normal levels.



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