By Richard Bell
“It was the same thing with Sobeys. Only a few idiots caused them to back out of Musquodoboit Harbour.”
How many times have you heard some version of this argument? (This version is from a Facebook comment criticizing people from Musquodoboit Harbour challenging the province’s decision to move Eastern Shore District High to an industrial park).
This “rural myth” has endured for almost twenty years. But an investigation by the Cooperator has determined that this claim is not true.
In response to a request from the Cooperator about whether dropping the store was a business decision, or a response to community opposition, Sobeys emailed the following statement:
“Thank you for reaching out regarding the land in Musquodoboit Harbour. You are correct – it was purely a business decision. When determining where to place our stores, Sobeys completes a thorough market and financial evaluation that looks at several factors. In the case of Musquodoboit Harbour, the analysis led to the decision not to build the store. We are proud of our Nova Scotian heritage and are happy to continue to serve our friends and neighbours across the Maritimes and from coast to coast.”
The Cooperator did not exist when Sobeys bought land (PID 41048919), in the core of Musquodoboit Harbour, filed a Development Agreement with HRM in 2001, and began talking with local residents and civic groups.
Since beginning publication in 2014, we have interviewed several individuals who participated in discussions about community concerns with Sobeys. Such discussions take place whenever there’s a major new building going up anywhere in the province, and there are often disagreements about various elements of any large-scale project like a grocery store.
In the Musquodoboit Harbour Sobeys’ case, participants in these discussions brought up several issues, including changes in the façade of the building to make it more compatible with the other nearby buildings, a proposal to put the parking lot behind the building instead of in front, and a change in the lighting fixtures in the parking lot in order to reduce the impact of the lighting at night.
Everyone we spoke with had accepted the outcome of these negotiations and believed that Sobeys would be building the store. They were surprised and shocked when the company announced, with no explanation at the time, that it was not going ahead with the store.
Grocery companies are notoriously secretive about the information they use to decide when to open, close, or modify stores. To get a better understanding of the business, we spoke with Sylvain Charlebois, Scientific Director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. Charlebois has been studying and writing about the grocery industry for more than 20 years, during which time he spoke regularly with Sobeys’ executives.
Charlebois said that he had never heard of a grocery company deciding not to build a store because of community concerns about cosmetic requirements. “I’ve seen serious opposition to food processing plants, like slaughterhouses,” Charlebois said. “Grocery stores are not that threating. I don’t know of a single example of a company walking away from a market because of concerns about cosmetic issues.”
“It’s not at all uncommon to see a grocery company plan a store, and then not go ahead,” Charlebois aid. “I can think of two examples, including one in my hometown. You’re dealing with a highly competitive landscape with very low profit margins. Engaging with the community is critical. You want to be transparent. But you can’t afford to be too transparent because you could compromise your competitive edge.”
Charlebois said most people do not realize how much churning goes on in the grocery store business. “Grocers are constantly looking to relocate stores, convert them, or close them. People don’t realize that a company like Loblaws [the biggest grocer in Canada; Sobeys is 2nd] open and close between 50 and 75 stores every year. Grocers are constantly rethinking their strategies.”
Charlebois’s advice to any community going through what Musquodoboit Harbour went through is simple: “Don’t take it personally. It’s just business.”