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Metrolinx, Loblaw to pilot grocery-pickup service at GO Transit stations

A westbound GO Train leaves Union Station on April 22, 2015.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The agency that runs GO Transit is about to start letting you pick up groceries at several of its train stations, a move that reflects the ongoing evolution of how we shop and commute.

The idea is part of a shift among transit agencies around the world to include in their stations businesses catering to the captive and time-pressed consumers that pour through daily. This evolution has been limited so far in the Toronto area, a gap that Metrolinx has been trying to address.

The agency has so far signed deals to have restaurants and shops in its Union Station hub; for a bar, a coffee shop and a branch of the Drake General Store in the adjoining station for its UP Express airport train; and to sell its Presto fare card at Shoppers Drug Mart locations. A new partnership announced on Monday between Metrolinx and Loblaw will mean that food ordered online would be delivered for pickup at five GO stations – which collectively serve about 60,000 passengers daily – as a way of testing the market for such an offering.

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Wendy Evans, founder and president of retail specialist Evans and Company Consultants, said that such an arrangement has benefits for both buyer and seller. For the public, "it's ultimate convenience," while for retailers, "it's about intercepting customers wherever you can."

Loblaw spokeswoman Catherine Thomas called it "the logical expansion" of the company's current online offerings at loblaws.ca and fortinos.ca.

Toronto has lagged in transit retail, even as an enormous range of good and services have become available in stations around the world, in cities such as New York, London and Tokyo.

There are places in other cities where you can drop off dry cleaning during your morning commute and pick it up on the way home. Some bus shelters allow waiting passengers to download e-books. Flowers, groceries and alcohol are commonly available in train stations, as are postal and banking services. There is the full range of restaurants, from fast-food outlets to the three-Michelin-star sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, located in a basement adjoining Ginza subway station in Tokyo.

There have been past attempts in Toronto to add retail to stations, including a pop-up store in 2012 that allowed subway users to scan the QR code on the picture of a product, which was then shipped to them. Other experiments included vending machines that dispensed clothing and kiosks for library books, although these have generally been short-lived.

To date, Toronto-area subway stations often have no more than a bare-bones convenience store and GO stations may not have even that.

However, a handful of factors may be making the idea of more diverse station retail increasingly feasible.

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The number of potential customers is increasing as the region grows, adding commuters to both roads and transit. It's also taking longer for people to get to work, according to Statistics Canada, meaning less time for errands. And online shopping continues to expand in popularity.

"We know people are already ordering everything," Metrolinx spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins said.

"If you spend time in the GO train, your day is long. [This] saves time. Your groceries will already be there."

Loblaw will be testing three different ways to preserve and store the food at the stations, to determine which method works best. According to Ms. Thomas, the company spokeswoman, orders will have to be placed by midnight the night before pickup, a timeline that could eventually be compressed. Orders must total at least $30 and will be levied a $5 flat fee.

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