A cleaner wipes a glass panel at Toronto’s Eaton Centre Shopping mall on Saturday, March 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

A cleaner wipes a glass panel at Toronto’s Eaton Centre Shopping mall on Saturday, March 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

12 weeks of Christmas — retailers speed up holiday plans in a daunting year

Higher than usual unemployment, end of loan deferrals could hamper shopping

Prepare to buy your boughs of holly early this year — or just have them delivered — as store owners adjust to a holiday season that may prove far from jolly.

Retailers are ramping up plans for a transformed Christmas shopping season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with strategies to draw buyers early, step up their e-commerce game and convince consumers to buy gifts for far-flung friends and family.

Indigo Books & Music Inc. is already rolling out cards and advent calendars. Mountain Equipment Co-op has seen a sales surge for winter products such as snowsuits, which it aims to load onto shelves ahead of schedule alongside snowshoes and skis to spread out the holiday rush.

Hudson’s Bay Co. will launch its yuletide collection of clothing and decor six weeks early at the start of October, while some Canadian Tire stores are already aglow with Christmas lights and baubles.

For Indigo CEO Heather Reisman, flexibility and health awareness are top of mind.

In the wake of 15 store closures since March, the chain has revamped its customer experience with private shopping hours “for people who may feel particularly compromised,” she said. Loyalty program members can visit outside of normal operating hours — typically before 10 a.m. and after 9 p.m. — to browse at will, free from crowds.

The 12 weeks leading up to New Year’s Day usually account for about one-third of annual sales, she said.

“It’s not possible to fully make up for almost three months of almost 200 physical stores closed (earlier this year)… so our goal is to get as close to last year’s sales as possible, recognizing that it will depend on customers spreading out their time.”

Shipping and logistics continue to be upended as the pandemic’s second wave begins to break. Fashion retailer Simons is investing millions in temporary shipping and packing stations to meet the expected spike in demand for online orders. However, CEO Peter Simons doubts the 180-year-old department store can reach previous revenue peaks for the season, which typically make up 40 per cent of sales for the year.

E-commerce poses a “huge logistical challenge,” he said, with online sales already tripling. “The complete infrastructure will be very taxed.”

The pandemic prompted Simons to postpone the opening of a $215-million automated distribution centre in the Montreal area. As a result, it will have to spend millions more on a hiring surge, already underway, to pack and sort online purchases through December, he said.

While some companies are relying on online deals and curbside pickup, London Drugs is bulking up its physical presence. It plans to construct queue shelters at more than half of its 82 stores by mid-October, including metal-roofed structures bolted to buildings to shield Prairie customers from wind and snow.

Real estate company Cadillac Fairview hopes to shorten indoor lineups by registering retailers on its appointment-booking app. The platform, launched recently as a pilot with jewelry chain Pandora at Toronto’s Eaton Centre, lets customers schedule a time to swing by the store without having to worry about long queues or crowded aisles.

Companies like Apple Inc. have relied on fluid customer appointment systems for years, but Cadillac Fairview hopes to bring less tech-savvy bricks-and-mortar vendors on board across its 19 shopping centres before Christmas.

Michael LeBlanc, a senior adviser at the Retail Council of Canada, says consumers may have more spending money on hand after shelling out less on vacations, commutes and lunchtime cappuccinos.

“Our message to Canadians for the holidays is: shop early and shop often. This is not the year to wait. And retailers are telling me they’re seeing signs of gift buying already,” LeBlanc said.

But a holiday season that features fewer store visits and gatherings of friends and family may see a corresponding decrease in impulse buys and lavish gift giving, with the unemployment rate lingering above 10 per cent and rent and loan payment deferrals set to expire.

More e-commerce means fewer whimsical purchases in the aisles. But online browsing offers plenty of impulse options as well, with retailers able to suggest products based on previous searches and purchases.

“That’s not as smooth online as we’d like… But that’s where you’ll have to fight this game, online,” LeBlanc said.

“I can’t think of a more important season for all of us, and then maybe that’s reflected in sending people gifts online. Merchants are hoping that will be the case… but we just don’t really know.”

Reitmans Canada Ltd., which is restructuring after the insolvent women’s apparel retailer was granted creditor protection in May, hopes to claw back customers with online style sessions by appointment for those hunting for personalized tips.

More casual winter wear will be among the threads on offer as telecommuting remains the norm. “We definitely have increased our cozy assortment,” said Reitmans president Jackie Tardif.

Seasonal outfits and items will hit the shelves early at various retailers across the country as COVID-19 upends the annual shopping surges on Black Friday and Boxing Day. But unless the pandemic returns with a vengeance — a real possibility — in-person purchases will not disappear entirely.

“We’re social animals. We’re tactile, social beings. The pandemic has perhaps made us realize what a privilege that is,” said Peter Simons.

“But it hasn’t taken away the hunger or the need for that contact, and I believe that will remain.”

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

ChristmasCoronavirusRetail

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A man wearing a mask against coronavirus walks past an NHS advertisement about COVID-19 in London, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
92 new COVID-19 cases, no new deaths: Interior Health

The region is reporting 92 cases after the weekend

Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick receives a first dose of Pfizer vaccine, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: B.C. seniors aged 90+ can start to sign up for vaccination on March 8

Long-term care residents protected by shots already given

Real estate has been moving very briskly in Kimberley since last summer. Bulletin file
Hot Kimberley real estate market leads to tightened inventory

Real estate sales in the entire Kootenay region have been brisk for… Continue reading

A dose of COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at a vaccination clinic in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
39 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health region

The total number of cases in the region since the pandemic began is now at 7,334

Langley resident Carrie MacKay shared a video showing how stairs are a challenge after spending weeks in hospital battling COVID-19 (Special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Stairs a challenge for B.C. woman who chronicled COVID-19 battle

‘I can now walk for six (to) 10 minutes a day’

AstraZeneca’s vaccine ready for use at the vaccination centre in Apolda, Germany, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michael Reichel/dpa via AP
National panel advises against using Oxford-AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine on seniors

NACI panel said vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are preferred for seniors ‘due to suggested superior efficacy’

A public health order has extended the types of health care professionals who can give the COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo courtesy of CHI Franciscan)
‘It’s great that midwives are included’ in rollout of B.C.’s COVID vaccine plan, says college

The order will help the province staff the mass vaccination clinics planned for April

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Shipping containers are seen at the Fairview Cove Container Terminal in Halifax on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Canadian economy contracted 5.4 per cent in 2020, worst year on record

Drop was largely due to shutdowns in the spring as COVID began to spread

The Nanaimo Clippers in action at Frank Crane Arena in early 2020. (News Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo Clippers for sale, owner says hockey won’t be back to normal any time soon

Wes Mussio says he’s had numerous inquiries about the junior A club already

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s coronavirus situation, May 8, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C.’s weekend COVID-19 cases: 532 Saturday, 508 Sunday, 438 Monday

Fraser Health still has most, eight more coronavirus deaths

Vernon’s Noric House long-term care facility’s COVID-10 outbreak has been declared over by Interior Health. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
COVID outbreak at Vernon’s Noric House declared over

10 deaths were linked to the outbreak at long-term care facility

B.C. Attorney General David Eby speaks in the legislature, Dec. 7, 2020. Eby was given responsibility for housing after the October 2020 provincial election. (Hansard TV)
B.C. extends COVID-19 rent freeze again, to the end of 2021

‘Renoviction’ rules tightened, rent capped to inflation in 2022

Most Read