TORONTO - The Canadian grocery business is undergoing major changes to meet the challenges of immigration, aging, new technology and health issues.

During a conference Monday and Tuesday, the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers heard from leaders in the industry.

Serving the needs of an aging population is one of the top issues facing grocers, says John Scott, president of CFIG, a non-profit trade association founded in 1962 and representing independent, franchised and specialty grocers across the country.

“The independent grocers have grown in the past few years because an older consumer has embraced them as part of their community,” he said in an interview. “They want a smaller store carrying smaller portion sizes to meet their needs.”

Scott, a retail analyst and president of CFIG for 19 years, says the organization has noticed that a lot of people are living alone and “they shop more frequently, making it an important part of their social network.”

In the past 20 years, Canada’s large cities have seen an explosion of more diverse immigration than in previous years, the president and CEO of market research company Ipsos Reid noted.

“It’s not just the numbers of immigrants but the type,” says Darrell Bricker. “The people who are coming here are radically different with different religions and cultural traditions.”

Bricker says the Internet has impacted the grocery business as well.

“People are using the Internet in a way that have influences nobody ever anticipated a decade ago,” he says.

“It is not just a communication tool but is also a device that exposes users to make choices,” Bricker says. “Align that with the Canadian population being better educated than ever before and people feel empowered to make demands, which makes for an extremely volatile marketing environment.”

Scott says that health and wellness products, from fresh prepared foods to processed items, are shedding their unhealthy ingredients. He cited one major canned soup company that has ditched its sodium and a frozen pizza manufacturer that has removed the preservatives from their products.

“It’s all healthy, natural ingredients and the consumer is buying that,” Scott says.

Stores are being built to reflect the area in which they do business.

“The new Longo’s store right in the heart of downtown Toronto’s business district concentrates on food service. It caters to the fact that people who live in the neighbouring condos don't have much storage space and don't tend to cook a lot.”

Bricker says that the grocery store customer is changing too.

“By that I mean in terms of attitude,” he says. “They are much more demanding of choice than they were in the past.

“And they are much more likely to hold anyone who is providing them with service to account. It is a much more competitive, demanding group of people that have ever existed on this part of the planet.”

Scott says one positive result of the recession, which still can be felt in many quarters, is that the economic downturn has “brought families back together again.

“People are cooking once more and we have seen an increase in sales of ingredients like flour and baking goods,” he says. “The whole concept of community, whether it be family or otherwise, has been very positive.”