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Catching up with Tom Barlow

The head of CFIG weighs in on the current state of the industry and reminds us that tough times in grocery are nothing new

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When Canadian Grocer first interviewed Tom Barlow, back in 2013, shortly after he became president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers (CFIG) he declared: “I love change.” Today, he insists that still holds true. “Without change,” he says, “why would you want to get out of bed in the morning?” Luckily for Barlow, change is a constant in grocery: changing regulations, changing consumers and changing competitive threats. Recently, we spoke with Barlow about all of these changes and more. Here are edited excerpts from our interview.

In your 2016 Canadian Independent Grocer Financial Survey, the economy, staffing, energy costs and competition were cited as the biggest concerns for your members. Where do these concerns sit currently?

It’s interesting because the economy jumped from the year before when it was third or fourth down the list and last year it became No. 1. What was happening in Alberta probably had a heavy influence. But I don’t see any change this year because the issues that have come up with minimum wage and energy costs have continued to push against businesses. And I would say those issues are not isolated to independent grocers, they are things everyone’s facing.

Competitive threats are coming from all directions. How should grocers respond?
The challenge for independents, particularly the smaller independents, is access to capital. It’s hard for them to change quickly. The message we continue to share with our members is you have to really understand your customers. If you’re about great service then you’ve got to be about great service. If you’re about fresh then you’ve got to be about fresh. If you’re trying to go head-to-head on price with someone who has a lot more resources, you’re probably not going to like the outcome.

Much of what is written about retail’s future takes a gloomy outlook, but do you see opportunities for independents?
Yes, I tell people that all the time. Everyone says how tough the industry is. I’ve been in it almost 40 years, it has always been tough. Whenever there’s competition it’s going to be tough. What you have to do is ask: what are the opportunities? The good thing about this business is that people always have to eat and drink—that’s not going to stop. It’s about how to get a fair share of that [food] dollar.

You’ve been in your role four years now. Among CFIG’s achievements what are you most proud?
I’m proud we’ve taken a more holistic industry approach, versus just focusing on things important to independents. I believe that if the whole industry is growing, we get to grow with it. And there are specific, tactical things we’ve been successful on, like [reducing] credit card fees. The sale of beer and wine in Ontario grocery stores is another example. When we started having the conversation [with government] there was no consideration for independent grocers. Now, when the next allotment of licences comes out we’re guaranteed independents will have at least 20% of the available licences. I believe that wouldn’t have happened without us.

In your first interview with us back in 2013, you said “what’s missing is the consolidated voice in the grocery business from the retailer side.” Have things changed?
They’re starting to change. Issues we’ve been dealing with like non-Canadian competition is helping the total grocery channel step back and say, instead of beating each other up, maybe we should start looking at the larger issues [together]. We’ve got far more collaboration and dialogue going with FCPC [Food and Consumer Products of Canada] and RCC [Retail Council of Canada]. When I came here four years ago there was no dialogue on our common issues, now we’re meeting on a regular basis.

What are CFIG’s goals in the next 12 months?
Our mandate is to grow and protect our members’ enterprises. On the grow side, it’s what are the opportunities out there for innovation and how do we help them service their customers and grow revenue? On the protect side, it’s to continue to fight the fight around things like credit card fees and energy and those costs that really put a dent on their bottom line. An area we haven’t yet tackled but that we’re starting to have more dialogue on with FCPC and RCC is around labelling and ingredients. I think that is a battle that’s coming and one where we need to be a lot more aligned on than we have been. Canadians have a high level of confidence in the groceries they buy and we need to protect that.

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