Biggest shopping day of the year moves online due to lockdown

·5 min read

Throngs of shoppers lining up outside every retailer in town at the crack of dawn, beaming cheek to cheek despite the cold Prairie weather, ready to storm inside and grab the products they’ve been eyeing for days — at deep discounts for Boxing Day sales.

Nope, that ain’t happening this year.

It’s 2020, which means that classic image of shoppers waiting outside retail stores won’t be a reality in Canadian provinces from coast to coast, thanks to restrictions in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Manitoba, only essential items are allowed to be purchased this weekend, which temporarily include holiday cards, gift wrap and poinsettias but not other products that would usually form the bulk of retail purchases on Boxing Day. Consumer electronics, toys, furniture, jewelry, personal clothing, and anything “non-essential” is forbidden for in-person sales, per public health orders.

It’s the same reality in Ontario and Quebec, which face widespread retail closures in effect, as of today. And across other provinces, strict capacity rules will curtail the number of shoppers allowed in stores, dissuading most from venturing out altogether.

But that doesn’t mean retailers won’t be putting up a strong fight to retain business on their most important day of the year.

Instead of offering in-person bargains today, retailers are enticing customers with deep discounts through curbside pickup and online transactions. Some big box stores are even focusing on vending leftover holiday and seasonal goods at more than half of their original prices.

“It might not be the kind of Boxing Day we’re used to from previous years, but I’m being cautiously optimistic,” said Rob Olinyk, president of Advance Electronics in Winnipeg, known for its discounts during the holiday season.

Olinyk told the Free Press it’s been tough to compete with online giants like Amazon, as an independent store that began to focus its attention towards e-commerce only in 2020.

“But what we learned from Black Friday this year is that our expectations are just that — expectations of what could happen,” he said. “We did much better than expected then, and with the local-buying sentiment I’ve been seeing, I’m hopeful it will remain the case on Boxing Day as well.”

Jonathan Alward, Prairies director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the reduction in sales will hit small businesses the hardest.

“The biggest problem is that smaller stores were used to the traffic they’d get in-store for any holiday sales,” he said. “And not only are most of those sellable products considered ‘non-essential’ now, they’re also non-essential items that could probably be cheaper to get at the website of a big box store.”

Tandy Thomas, a business professor at Queen’s University, said that’s why she believes Boxing Day sales will be the ultimate test for how well independent stores have been able to transfer their business online.

“The big retail story this entire year is about online shopping,” she said, adding Boxing Day is one of the few times of the year when “consumers are primed to shop” and some people have been waiting for the sales event to spend money.

“Canadians weren’t able to cross the border into the U.S. for Black Friday to get some of those deeper discounts, so it could have been a great year for Canadian retailers to get back a little bit of the glory days of Boxing Day,” said Thomas. “But all those plans have been tossed out the window because of current restrictions.”

Farla Efros, president of HRC Retail Advisory, a Canadian consulting firm that works with stores to increase their profitability, said that’ll be problem for big box stores as well.

“It’s all about the balance sheet,” she said, adding the spending spree will likely be a “sad” and “lacklustre” shell of its usual self. “There is going to be so much excess inventory that they’re just trying to get rid of,” added Efros.

Lisa Hutcheson, managing partner at consulting firm J.C. Williams Group, predicts there will be more gift-card sales than the traditional wrapped gift this year. She believes those sales will likely cause some inventory to stay in excess for a long time to come and other items to completely run out.

“If you go into a Canadian Tire some of the sporting goods shelves are (already) empty,” she said. “We could see some of the shortages we saw during the first wave of lockdowns.”

“But more than anything,” said Chuck Davidson, president and CEO of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, “I think it’s the experience, magic and fun of Boxing Day sales that people will miss the most this year.”

For Olinyk, who used to commission a DJ for the holiday sales at his Portage Avenue store, that’s true, too.

“I know people will come back in spades next year, I just know they miss it,” he said. “Shopping during the holidays isn’t just checking things off your list, it’s an experience and a memory.

“And to me that means, once this is over, we’re all going to be more than excited to jump back in those long lines for the next Boxing Day in 2021.”

—With files from the Canadian Press

Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press