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The flyers comes in bunches. They are hand-delivered to our house in a Publisac bag every Wednesday. Publisac is a door-to-door delivery network in Quebec that specializes in advertising and circulating promotional material. It is produced for and distributed by the Quebec-based company Transcontinental Media[1] and reaches 3.5 million Quebecers every week. Elsewhere similarly packaged flyers are often called "adbags[2]".

According to the company's website[3], Publisac began in Quebec in 1986 as a way to distribute flyers from a variety of stores directly to consumers. Each plastic bag has one or more advertisements printed on it. Inside are flyers from various retailers, such as Canadian Tire (a Canadian hardware and outdoor supply store), other local businesses which may include pharmacies, office supply and furniture stores, and most importantly for our home, several neighbourhood supermarkets. While my wife and I don't need rakes or toothpaste every week, we do need groceries and we find that the flyers are an easy way to compare what is on sale at different supermarkets every week.

Fig 1

Publisac with flyers, photo by Barry Lazar, Montreal May 19, 2017

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However, not everyone welcomes a weekly deposit of a half kilo or so of printed flyers on their doorstep. Several neighbours have signs on their doors requesting no delivery; but my wife and I look forward to the weekly Publisac.

Fig 2

No flyers "pas de circulaire" and graphic on mailbox, Barry Lazar, Montreal, May 19, 2017

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Fig 3

No flyers "pas de circulaire" sign on door, Barry Lazar, Montreal, May 19, 2017

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Fig 4

No flyers graphic on door, Barry Lazar, Montreal, May 19, 2017

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Like many people, I spend a lot of time online and I am bombarded with unwanted solicitations for anything from medication (because I searched something online last night) to car insurance (because we researched buying a car).

Although I like to think that I shop with discretion, I know that I am a consumer. I live in a city. I buy things. As I grow, have a family, adapt to changes around me, I purchase all sorts of products. A paper flyer, however, gives me the opportunity to consider what I might buy without someone or something looking over my shoulder. It's actually relaxing to have an uninterrupted and analog approach to consumerism. There are no email or Facebook notifications to distract me. With traditional flyers, I know I will not be solicited with additional - advertising for favas, pintos, lentils, or kidneys after I have looked online at an ad for a can of beans. I can focus on something comfortably, at my own pace.

I do understand that I leave digital footprints whenever I conduct a search or purchase an item online. As the hunter stalks the hunted, I too am tracked and occasionally snared. So I welcome the opportunity analog flyers provide in removing the computer from my decision-making process.

Maintaining a sense of privacy is one reason I appreciate Publisac. I also enjoy having something that I can hold, peruse in my own time, and spread over the living room table, to read, clip, fold, and mark up. I am, perhaps, of a generation that finds comfort in tangibility. I enjoy reading and scanning stories in a newspaper. I find a welcome and comfortable serendipity in the way that I can wander through print that is not possible when reading a screen. With my laptop or tablet, I point and click and invariably move from “page” to “page” often ending up far away, frequently forgetting where I started. With a printed flyer, I never have that problem.

I glance through the flyers, but I don't read them assiduously. My wife and partner-in-life-and-shopping, does that. She looks forward to going through the supermarket flyers and hunts for deals.

My food shopping philosophy is different. I am an impulsive hunter-gatherer. I hunt for food and gather what I want. I may go to the store with a recipe or shopping list, but that's about it. From my perspective, flyers make for interesting reading — “oh yeah, steak fajitas for dinner sounds good,” I’ll say to myself. I read these flyers as I do cookbooks or food sections of magazines: more for ideas about cooking, and less for a list of ingredients that I will actually buy. However, for my wife, and for other consumers, flyers are an essential part of the shopping experience.[4]

Before I began researching this article, I had thought flyers might be on the way out. But printed supermarket flyers delivered with other advertisements in ad-bags, or in a Publisac, or newspaper inserts remain relatively popular. According to a 2016 poll by CROP for TC Transcontinental, Canada's largest commercial printer, 5.1 million readers consult flyers each week in Quebec. That's almost two-thirds of the province's population.[5] This trend crosses generations: although, according to a recent study, older shoppers (50+) are more likely to check paper flyers while younger consumers (18-34) are more likely to check flyers online.[6]

On one level, I find the continued distribution of and interest in printed flyers surprising. I regularly search for information online. I am as comfortable comparing, let's say, lawn mowers available from Amazon, Home Depot, or my local hardware store, as I am going through my university library's databases preparing for a class.

Searching for information online leads to buying online, which has affected print advertising. As retailers develop websites to promote their products and engage us as consumers, their reliance on traditional forms of advertising — particularly classified advertising in newspapers — has declined. In many cases, this has been a key factor in the demise of daily newspapers.

As The Economist wrote 10 years ago:

Advertising is following readers out of the door. The rush is almost unseemly, largely because the internet is a seductive medium that supposedly matches buyers with sellers and proves to advertisers that their money is well spent. Classified ads, in particular, are quickly shifting online. Rupert Murdoch, the Beaverbrook of our age, once described them as the industry's rivers of gold—but, as he said last year, “Sometimes rivers dry up.” [7]

That decline has forced many publishers to reduce the size of their papers, lay off employees and restructure.[8]

Classified advertising used to be essential to a newspaper's profitability. But for most of us, the online world – which includes popular classified sites such as Craigslist and Kijiji — has become a cheaper and seemingly free alternative. Of course, we pay for this through monthly service provider fees, but also indirectly, by providing information and data about what we buy, what interests us. In other words, our shopping behaviour and food preferences are tracked.

Food, which is not normally advertised on online classified sites, was also once important to a newspaper's bottom-line. For instance, in Montreal in the 1970s, for several French and English dailies, such as the Montreal Star, (which was then the dominant English language paper[9] ), ad revenue was essential. Advertising by Steinberg’s, Dominion, A&P, IGA and other local supermarket chains (some of which no longer exist) was a critical component of revenue; so much so, that when the Montreal Star’s pressmen went on strike in 1978, food advertising immediately shifted to the city's other popular English language daily, The Gazette. After the strike, which lasted eight months, the Star resumed printing, but supermarket and other advertising never returned in quite the same way. The evening daily had lost $14.6 million and 50,000 readers as a result of the strike[10] and stopped publishing in 1979. This was not the only reason the Star folded, but it contributed to the newspaper's end.

The shift in print advertising did not signify the end of food advertising, however. People still did weekly, or more frequent, food shopping and wanted information about where to shop. Newspaper advertising supplements could be inserted in specific papers delivered to targeted neighbourhoods and this replaced generic advertising in the paper. Today, as printed newspapers either reduce in size or disappear altogether (La Presse, with a daily circulation of over 200,000, is now only published online[11]), Publisac flyers remain, for many shoppers, the only printed advertising available.

Flyers also supplement more recent online approaches to buying food. While social media have become ubiquitous in all kinds of advertising, recourse to these platforms is part of a larger marketing approach to get the consumer into the store. With many retailers, the objective of using social media — including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube – is to engage with customers to retain their loyalty and “create a good customer experience”.[12]

It was only about 10 years ago that the online commercial world developed in ways that enabled consumers as well as companies to openly and publicly state their thoughts about a product. Through the relatively recent phenomena of social media, with its inherent monitoring and analysis, advertisers can better track and attract current and potential shoppers. People are also encouraged to tell their stories, rate their experiences, and do more than just buy a product. Marketing becomes participative as customers share knowledge about what interests them[13]. But, particularly when it comes to food, they still need to be brought to the product. This is where flyers come in.

The supermarket or grocery flyer exposes consumers who are in close proximity to a store immediately prior to the shopping trip itself. [14]Several studies also consistently show that ‘getting a deal’ is an important part of what a flyer should communicate. Studies that analysed shoppers who look forward to getting a flyer indicate that “exposure to the advertising sale flyer for retail supermarkets is significantly and positively related to the number of advertised products purchased” and that these consumers are also more likely to buy products than those who don't look at store flyers.[15] A 2016 CROP poll reports 75% of Quebec respondents agreeing that “The Publisac helps me find the best discounts on various products”.[16]

These data reflect the purchasing and shopping trends in our household. My wife takes pride in knowing what food should cost. She shops at least weekly and has learned when an advertised product is really a deal or when it is merely being promoted. I am developing this knowledge, but for now it is usually for items I regularly purchase. For example, there is a brand of espresso coffee I like that is often $4.29 for 250 grams. Once or twice a year a local supermarket sells it at $5 for two; during this sale, I buy several packages. My wife intuitively knows more than me. Whether we want avocados to make guacamole or more cans of cat food, she notes the bargains from the flyers for our nearby Super C, Provigo (Loblaw’s), Esposito and Metro supermarkets. A 2017 study by BrandSpark Canada shows that most consumers support this approach to shopping; 80% or more of their respondents agree with the following statements: “I feel proud when I get great value for my money”, “I will stock up when one of my favourite products is on sale”, and “I study the flyers promotions and discounts before my shopping trips.”[17]

The same BrandSpark study (N=5,524) also shows that “nearly all shoppers are counted as members in a loyalty program.” Philip Scrutton, VP Consumer & Shopper Insights for BrandSpark International adds that

Most shoppers will trade some privacy in the form of their buying habits being tracked in exchange for tangible value in the form of rewards or discounts – despite some privacy concerns, 1 in 2 shoppers agree that they appreciate discounts or other special offers targeted to them based on their browsing history.[18]

I am one of those shoppers. I have airline point cards which are accepted at some stores and gas stations, as well as cards for Metro supermarkets and for the SAQ, the Quebec liquor commission. Each gives me “points” when I shop. While I might occasionally benefit from a discount or a special reduced price for card holders, I know that the real reason for these cards is that retailers can track what I buy.

These “loyalty cards” are controversial. “The whole point is to give the best shoppers something special, and you have to pay for that out of something,” said David Diamond in an article in which he was commenting for a company that handles many supermarket card programs. However, the same article mentions that stores often inflate the price suggested by the manufacturer, also known as the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP)[19]. Am I truly getting a bargain? Perhaps not, if I am being selectively tracked each time I use my loyalty card. However, if a deal is listed in a flyer, I feel more assured that the same deal is being offered to everyone, point card or not, and I can easily compare what other stores are offering without giving up my personal data.

I try to balance my interests with how much corporate intrusion I am willing to accept. This can vary depending on how restrictive I want to be with my data and what I am willing to let companies know about me. I do understand that each time I use these cards I am divulging shopping preferences, data about my demographic, and likely additional personal information. I confess to being ambivalent about this. Today's retail email may be tomorrow's “unsubscribe” or deleted email that I never take the time to read. There is likely a hypothetical, perhaps Faustian, red line that I am not willing to cross. But for now, I am willing to engage with the software that is tracking me. Siri and Alexa are you reading this?

More importantly, I don't like feeling overwhelmed by my online life. I like to be able to shut the door or close the laptop and walk away to an analog preserve in which printed material, such as books, magazines, newspapers, and flyers play their part.

Whether or not my admittedly atavistic attitude to grocery shopping and the internet is common, online grocery sales are increasing[20] and more grocery chains offer home food delivery. (In this context, the recent acquisition of Whole Foods Market Inc. by the gigantic tech and retail internet company Amazon.Com Inc., will enable the company to deliver groceries from an established food company, with stores currently in the USA, Canada, and the United Kingdom, directly to homes or at least let consumers buy online and pick up their order in the store.[21])

But that does not mean that the flyer is disappearing. Instead, it has become intrinsic to grocery shopping. Loblaw's “quick shop” website[22] wants to make our shopping experience easier with “flyers, deals and online shopping”. British Columbia’s Thrifty Foods, claims “you just tell us what you want and we'll select your groceries[23]”. The graphics, pictures and text are as we would find them in a printed form. Apps including Flipp, and Reebee also give me prices and match discounts across retailers are growing in popularity. [24]

However, I find that that the online flyer experience is different from buying online from say Amazon or Wal-Mart. Their web pages list hundreds of food items. A shopper clicking on a product, such as a package of ramen or a can of tuna on Wal-Mart’s grocery site can consult dozens of comments (referred to as ‘reviews’), a list of stores that have stock, estimated delivery times, and suggestions for similar products other shoppers have bought. I can spend a lot of time on these sites, comparing different kinds of breakfast cereal, but it is not efficient if I have a list of groceries to get that afternoon. Invariably, in our home, we revert to printed flyers to assess what we need to buy.

In 2013, the Safeway chain planned to end its print advertising in favour of more personal digital advertising. This advertising would target consumers with customized or personalized digital coupons; however, the chain recognized that printed flyers were still in demand, such that they continue to be a part of Safeway's advertising strategy in its Canadian stores.[25]

Moreover, flyers are proving to be increasingly relevant when linked with new technology. For example, Canadian Tire recently reported that “online sales doubled ... after the firm mailed out a paper catalogue that interacted with its mobile app to unlock additional information for shoppers...”.[26] I won't be surprised to see something similar soon with the supermarket flyers in our Publisac.

A 2014 CTV news story, based on a BrandSpark study, noted that not all retailers are convinced that consumers are ready to give up the traditional print flyers. The story quoted Philip Scrutton of BrandSpark, a North American market research firm specializing in shopping trends. Scrutton said that “there [are] a lot of costs with paper flyers and retailers would love for digital to replace it, if it could be just as effective”. He added that print flyers remain part of shoppers' habits because they can "carry them around, circle deals and easily access them for price-matching at competing retailers".

In addition, 95% of 18,700 Canadian adults polled said that they check grocery store flyers at least once a month while only 23 per cent looked at online flyers.[27]

It may be that online food shopping will spell the end of the traditional grocery store or supermarket. Where online grocery shopping succeeds, it works not because it saves money, but because it is convenient. A study, reported in Forbes Magazine, by The Hartman Group, a research firm specializing in analyzing food trends, showed that two-thirds of those who buy groceries online do it to save time, to save on time spent driving, or on gas. Only a third shop for groceries online to save money or to buy food in bulk. The study also indicated that unlike other types of consumption, where there are early adopters,

[o]nline grocery shoppers today do not appear to enter the experience looking for a radical new way to shop (even if they eventually start shopping differently due to use of online platforms). For consumers whose shopping behaviour is full of dull, fill-in and pantry-stocking trips, online grocery has interesting potential to remove drudgery. For others who are not so tired of food shopping, online grocery will most likely not seduce them until super-fast delivery becomes reliable and feasible (e.g., Instacart) and ordering processes are more closely harmonized with how households really buy food. [28]

However, online grocery shopping represents only 1-3% of overall sales. One problem is that unlike other products, many grocery items are perishable. Another concern is that profit margins in supermarkets are small (often less than 2% and a little more for specialty stores and gourmet grocers[29]) and online food shopping is more costly for retailers, and thus for the consumer as well.[30] In Canada, Philip Scrutton of BrandSpark-notes that “almost 1 in 10 have tried online grocery shopping in the past year... supplementing trips to the store”[31]

My wife and I are still part of the other 90%. We don't shop for groceries online. When we are out of milk, yogurt, or eggs, we need to get them that day, or more likely that evening, so that we have them for breakfast. Additionally, as much of the food we buy is perishable, we want to check the quality for ourselves. The other day I was at the supermarket and prodding the avocados. Some were hard and would need several days to ripen. A woman was examining them as well. She looked over at me and said “It is always the same question, are they for today or tomorrow.” A few feet away, a couple was looking through a flyer as they pushed a cart down the aisle.

Supermarket flyers may be inefficient compared to online, targeted marketing. Printed flyers are generic; they aren’t customized. They do not track my shopping. They cannot “know” me. They are only intrusive in that they are unsolicited and dropped off at my doorstep. I can toss them in the recycling bin without concern that an algorithm is watching me, tracking my every food purchase.

In many ways, the future is already upon us. We are almost at the point where my refrigerator can ascertain if we are low on milk or eggs and place an order at the supermarket with the best deal. It may know what I need; but not what I want. Even as our tools take control of our purchases, the Publisac remains a viable and consistent way to shop from home and is unlikely to disappear soon.