MONTREAL — While it sounds sacrilegious, the H1N1 flu that’s threatening to sweep North America this fall may be good for Quebec retailers.

“I saw a television report that recommended getting lots of rest and eating more fruits and vegetables, especially garlic, to stay healthy,” said Bernadette Hamel, vice president of national procurement, merchandising and replenishment for Metro Richelieu.

But retailers have more to worry about than germs as chain stores continue to do battle to attract customers.

“The heat is being turned up and there’s a lot of competition and tension … it’s a war to increase market share,” said Hamel.

Metro hopes to win the war by focusing on customer needs and asking shoppers directly how they feel about the assortment of products and the shopping experience, Hamel said.

For example, those who answer a survey on the company Web site,, have a chance to win a $1,000 shopping spree.

Metro also is improving its organic section, she said.

“Organics is major,” Hamel said, “but it’s always been hit-and-miss. We’re about to hire one person to put a winning program in place for Quebec and Ontario.”

Over at Loblaw Cos., meanwhile, stores are being spruced up and staff are being trained to deal with customers more effectively, said Josée Bédard, corporate affairs director of Provigo Inc., a Loblaw chain.

“In 2009 we have seen market volumes decline and inflation dropping off, plus unemployment rates continue to be around 9%,” Bédard said. “We anticipate intensified competitive activity and sales being challenging for the next 12 months as the industry cycles a year of high inflation.”

While the reduced volumes are not specific to any single category, she said, the company has noticed a decline in the home meal replacement category as consumers cook more at home to save money.

Organics are doing very well in Quebec’s Loblaw and Provigo stores depending on the region, Bédard said.

“As we expand the variety, the customer keeps coming. Price as well has been very competitive with the conventional product.”

While Quebecers are strong supporters of local produce, fall has brought an increased sense of consumer confidence that’s showing up in sales of vegetables beyond the traditional carrots, potatoes and onions, Bédard said.

She sees greater interest in items such as squash, leeks and sweet potatoes, and a greater demand for Asian greens as they become mainstream and appear in more recipes.

“Crisping our greens has been a major focus, allowing us to offer fresher, crisper vegetables,” she said.

Loblaw and Provigo customers also are being tempted with new items, including brown Kumato tomatoes from Leamington, Ontario, greenhouses; Clemengold clementines from South Africa; wine grapes from Niagara, Ontario.; and President’s Choice multicolored fingerling potatoes from Texas.