09/30/2013 09:28 EDT | Updated 11/30/2013 05:12 EST

Ethnic and gluten-free foods continue to dominate at the grocery store

TORONTO - Gluten-free foods and ethnic offerings are expected to continue their march onto store shelves as grocers also look to sustainability and ponder how to deal with online ordering.

Ethnic products have been top of mind for retailers for several years. In the past, "if you wanted to get those products you had to go to a traditional ethnic grocer and now it's switched where you've now got the large players putting it in and making it permanent sections," Tom Barlow, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, said ahead of a mammoth conference and trade show featuring about 500 exhibitors.

"Even non-ethnic Canadians are looking for those products and have introduced them into their diets."

The Grocery Innovations Canada event running Monday and Tuesday at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre offers a glimpse into the future of emerging food products Canadian consumers could soon see at the supermarket.

People want ease of preparation, noted Barlow, like the salad that's three-quarters made so they can add the remainder of the ingredients or an Indian or Italian dish in which the sauce is prepared and can simply be heated and combined with a protein and rice or pasta.

"It's the balance of the new generation. Mom cooked and they really didn't grow up cooking and now you get this explosion of the Food Network and the foodie culture and how do I get there and how do I do it relatively fast and efficient because we're all time-starved."

Barlow, who retired from Coca-Cola after 35 years including six as Canadian president, expected there would be considerable interest in a panel discussion on online grocery ordering.

"A lot of retailers are trying to figure out how do I compete, do I get into this or how do I manage around this?" said Barlow, who took the helm of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers when longtime president John Scott stepped down earlier this year.

"And the challenge has been for traditional grocery, consumers really don't mind I'm putting a couple cases of Coke on there and I'm throwing on some Pampers and a Tide. When I get into produce or I get into bread it becomes a little more personal and feel and touch plays such a big part.

"You see it at the tomato bin. Not that one, not that one, OK that one. So how are you going to do it if you're letting someone else do it for you."

Barlow noted that researchers and growers have been working on ways to extend the life of some products, such as new strains of berries that have a longer growing season. Artisanal items such as cheese are of growing interest too.

Retailers have long tried to second guess what consumers are looking for.

"That's always been a bit of a conundrum between what they say they want and what they actually purchase when it becomes time," Barlow said. "As the baby boomers get older they're starting to be a lot more focused on what am I eating, what am I putting into myself."

"Even the traditional guys are starting to expand. We just heard that Weston is coming out with a gluten-free bread kind of in mass production so it kind of shows you the change in the consumer."

CFIG represents more than 4,000 independent grocery retailers across the country who face considerable competition from chain stores.

"The guys that are doing very well are the ones that have identified that they really need to create that difference in their stores ... investing in the local produce and that unique opportunity or a meat offering that's unique in 21-day hung meat that perhaps you can't get anywhere else or investing in the bakery side or ready-to-prepare meals.

"The guys that are doing it well are shrinking kind of the inside of the store which has been traditional grocery and expanding on the fresh side."