Competition Bureau is looking into claims that Loblaws and Sobeys are using unfair property controls to stifle competition

Sylvain Charlebois: Competition Bureau takes a stand. FinallyThe recent move by Canada’s Competition Bureau to investigate the parent companies of grocery giants Loblaws and Sobeys marks a significant step in addressing anticompetitive behaviour in the retail grocery sector.

Its investigation, initiated on Mar. 1, focuses on their alleged use of property controls, which purportedly restrict competition through their lease agreements and control over land vacancies. With these two companies holding a combined market share of over 50 percent in the Canadian food retailing market, the potential implications are substantial.

According to Federal Court records, the Commissioner of Competition’s inquiry centres on suspicions that Loblaws and Sobeys are using their property controls to limit the activities of potential tenants, thereby reducing competition.

This is of particular concern in rural areas where communities often have limited grocery options, making them especially vulnerable to such practices. The allegations suggest that these companies are not only controlling who can lease space in shopping centres but also holding onto vacant lands to prevent competitors from entering the market. Sobeys’ parent company has responded by calling the inquiry “unlawful,” reflecting the tension and defensiveness within the industry.

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However, many observers are not surprised by these developments, as the grocery sector has long been criticized for its market control tactics. The investigation underscores a broader issue: the control of market access and the strategic importance of location in the grocery business. These companies have mastered the art of location optimization, ensuring their dominance by strategically positioning and protecting their stores.

The public’s frustration with the grocery industry has been building, partly due to the long-running bread price-fixing scandal that has plagued both the industry and the Competition Bureau. After nine years, the investigation remains unresolved, eroding public trust. The current investigation into Loblaws and Sobeys is a crucial opportunity for the Bureau to demonstrate its commitment to protecting consumers and ensuring fair competition.

Within the grocery industry, there is a prevailing belief among executives that their practices are justified, driven by the need to maximize profits and serve customers. These practices have become normalized over decades, making it challenging to shift industry culture. However, the current food security crisis in Canada, highlighted by a poor rating from Food Banks Canada, has made the public less tolerant of actions that limit their access to affordable food options.

The Competition Bureau’s role is akin to law enforcement in ensuring market fairness. Just as speed limits and police patrols keep roads safe, the Bureau’s oversight is essential to prevent anticompetitive practices in the grocery sector. For the Bureau to regain public trust, it must complete this investigation swiftly and transparently, with clear recommendations made public. This will signal to both the industry and consumers that the Bureau is actively policing the market.

While the public needs to be educated about the complexities of the food industry, it is equally crucial for grocers to recognize that they are dealing with a more informed and less tolerant consumer base. The Competition Bureau’s investigation is a necessary step in aligning industry practices with public expectations and ensuring a fair and competitive market.

This shift begins with robust oversight and decisive action from the Bureau.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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