Loblaw Has Become an Everything Company

The grocery chain is now involved in pharmacare, financial services, and real estate—with no signs of slowing down

A black-and-white photo of Galen Weston Jr. wearing a red vest against a red backdrop
Former Loblaw chairman and president Galen Weston Jr. (The Walrus / The Canadian Press / Chris Young)

If you live in Canada, you’re probably part of the Loblaw ecosystem, whether you like it or not. The chains the company operates include Provigo, Zehrs, Fortinos, Independent, Real Canadian Superstore, No Frills, Maxi, T&T, Shoppers Drug Mart, and, of course, its own eponymous supermarkets. Its brands are household names: President’s Choice, No Name, Joe Fresh, Life. You almost surely have some Loblaw products on your shelves or in your cupboards.

A domestic grocer that first saw the promise of self-serve shopping in 1919 (at the time, items were collected for you by clerks), Loblaw expanded five years after its debut. It kept growing. As of 2023, it accounts for nearly a third of Canada’s grocery market. But there’s more to Loblaw than frozen meals, soy milk, and minced turkey. With over 2,500 stores in Canada, it claims to process roughly 2 billion transactions a year through its online pharmacy, cosmetics, apparel, and financial services. It boasts that 90 percent of Canadians live within ten kilometres of a location, while nearly half of us (over 18 million) are part of its data-hoovering PC Optimum program. On top of that, 3 million hold a PC Financial Mastercard. Loblaw, whose slogan is “Live Life Well,” is also gobbling up health care: it operates seventy-four for-profit clinics; almost as many are planned this year. With its stake in the telemedicine platform Maple, Loblaw is on a mission to capture your dollars from cradle to grave.

Loblaw’s sensational fourth-quarter results—$14.53 billion in revenue and $541 million in profit—suggest the mission is going well. That same success has helped make the company a lightning rod for consumer anger. Loblaws ended up near the bottom of the list of most respected retailers chosen by Canadians in 2023. Around the same time, then Loblaw chairman and president Galen Weston Jr. was hauled before a parliamentary committee, which grilled him over soaring food prices. New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh went on an all-out attack, accusing Weston of “ripping people off.” Weston pushed back against price-gouging allegations, blaming rising grocery bills on higher costs charged by food processors and other suppliers. However, economist Jim Stanford took to X last February noting that grocers in Canada have recently enjoyed not just higher profits but higher profit margins—a practice one might call profiteering. Retailers keep charging more, in other words, not just because of increased industry costs but because there isn’t enough competition to stop them.

Loblaw’s status as the ambassador for corporate depredation has been a long time coming. In 2017, it was embroiled in a bread price fixing scandal. Loblaw and other grocery giants then got slammed for cancelling pandemic “hero pay” raises just as employees were struggling to make ends meet. Even its price-freeze effort was evidence of oligopoly dominance: it proved the company could strategically set prices and was not helpless in the face of market forces.

Weston, who later resigned and was replaced by the impossibly named Per Bank, became an easy mark. He tried to portray himself in public as a friendly, avuncular figure. His effort failed. Labelled “the poster boy for supermarket excess” by Stanford, Weston fought attempts to raise the minimum wage even as his own take-home pay spiked—in 2022 alone, he netted $8.4 million in total compensation. Then there is his altruistic justification for all that profit. Weston reassured the parliamentary committee the profit was reinvested “back in this country to create more stores, more services, and more jobs.” Maybe so. But last year, while Canadians were being forced to choose between food and medication, Loblaw and other members of the corporate elite ploughed billions into stock buybacks, boosting its share price and CEO bonuses.

Reputational risk seems hardly a concern for the company: Loblaws pushed their luck even further in early 2024, cutting its 50 percent discount on nearly expired goods to 30 percent, before reversing course amidst a public backlash. In February, another wave of outrage from customers and experts forced health insurer Manulife to walk back a deal to cover certain prescription drugs exclusively at Loblaw-owned pharmacies—an arrangement that would have deepened Loblaw’s reach into Canadian lives, a presence already bordering on the imperial. (Incredible but true: Loblaw owners, the Westons, who also have reach into the Irish and British markets, live in a literal English castle, Fort Belvedere, once home to King Edward VIII.)

These days, corporate empires have rebranded as “everything companies,” and everything companies tend to proselytize about the efficiencies they achieve. By operating pharmacies, health clinics, and financial services, among many other businesses, a retailer can better accommodate consumers as a one-stop shop. There’s an intuitive logic here. The more Loblaw can harmonize and cross-subsidize across its various business lines, the better it can serve you, right? Loblaw’s ecosystem does indeed aim at harmony, but its interest is in harmonizing market control, which comes at a cost for consumers, who have little choice but to operate within its boundaries, watch their data be harvested and leveraged, and pay more for less. Any economist will tell you that a lack of competition makes it easier for companies to raise prices. As Shoppers Drug Mart expanded into health services, critics warned it might be pressured into putting profits first and care second by cutting corners, rushing patients, and pushing unnecessary treatments. And right on target, Shoppers was recently accused of unethical billing practices in its MedsCheck consultation program.

Canada is notorious for nurturing oligopolistic tendencies—there are several variations of the joke that the country is three companies in a trench coat. Part of the reason is that the Canadian state, from the government to its regulatory bodies, too often buys, or at least pretends to buy, the efficiencies argument. We are slow to prevent monopolies or oligopolies from forming, and then we are unable or unwilling to break them up once they’ve formed. According to Keldon Bester, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Monopoly Project, “there is in our competition institutions, and reflected in parts of government, a ‘first do no harm’ kind of approach.” That attitude is complemented by so-called “regulatory humility,” he adds, which means the state plays the role of an uncertain broker, unwilling to assume the worst of companies. He says this approach misses the “one-way nature of these things,” and so it becomes less likely that we can reverse their concentration and entrenchment.

It’s hard to be optimistic about what comes next for consumers. There is no sign that Loblaw will slow its growth—indeed, it is gearing up to open forty more stores. Revenues, profits, and reach are on the rise, and the federal government is, at best, chasing the contrail of the jet rather than speeding to catch up to it. Our leaders seem to misunderstand the nature and scope of the oligopoly challenge this country faces. The Competition Bureau, in its Retail Grocery Market Study published in 2023, confirmed what many of us already knew: there isn’t enough competition in the grocery industry. The watchdog offered recommendations, two of which amounted to the government encouraging more players to enter the sector. The federal Liberals are, more or less, attempting to facilitate this, with Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry François-Philippe Champagne trying to woo international discount grocers, such as German chain Aldi, to Canada. Who knows if that will work. The feds are also pitching a voluntary code of conduct to help make dealings between grocery stores and suppliers fairer and clearer and hopefully lead to better prices for consumers. Loblaw is, naturally, complaining about it.

But as Vass Bednar, the executive director of McMaster University’s master of public policy, reminded us in her Substack newsletter, “Loblaw isn’t just a grocery company. It’s a company with diverse revenue streams that produce an ecosystem of financial assets.” That structure means that merely introducing competition in the grocery industry won’t be enough to dislodge Loblaw’s dominance. In another of its recommendations, the Competition Bureau got at a concern that transcends the grocery industry and touches on the threat mega corporations pose when they have a hand in several industries at once—particularly when those industries intersect. The bureau suggested the government “limit the use of property controls that make it difficult for new grocery stores to open.”

This is a significant and scandalous problem, since, in the grocery sector, property clauses can be used to keep competitors from locating in desirable spaces. If that weren’t bad enough, Loblaw’s parent company, George Weston Ltd, owns a real estate investment trust, Choice Properties REIT. This further extends Loblaw’s grip on the country by allowing the company to potentially control, among other things, commercial real estate locations in which rivals might operate.

Canadians seem to get that something is wrong. They pay the cost of higher food prices. They experience the enshittification of health care. They watch paycheques stagnate as corporate profits soar. They live, daily, the lack of choice. Whether or not people know the details of corporate strategy and the intricacies of balance sheets, they know what we’re talking about.

But is that enough? At some point, people may become sufficiently fed up. They may demand the government to do something meaningful about it and hold them to it. The decline of the governing Liberal Party’s fortunes may be bound up with these frustrations—not that the Conservatives will do any better. They are just as wedded to Canadian oligopoly as anyone else is, lacking the motivation, will, or capacity to root out the problem.

Of course, we may just slip increasingly into a digitally driven capitalist totalitarian nightmare from which there is no escape. Our future, however, isn’t determined. Corporate behemoths have fallen before. They may fall again. But no one ought to hold their breath.

David Moscrop
David Moscrop is a political theorist, a contributing columnist for the Washington Post, and the author of Too Dumb for Democracy?