Santa will be 'touchless' this year: How retailers are trying to make holiday shopping safe amid COVID-19

·4 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way holiday shopping will be done this year.

From large shopping centres to independent shops, retailers are preparing for their busiest season like never before.

At Toronto's Yorkdale Shopping Centre, shoppers will be able to use their smartphones to find a parking spot and check product availability. There will be colour-coded zones for curbside pickup. And this year, mall Santas will be coming to town virtually.

"We are really encouraging people to shop early or late and avoid peak periods," Kimberly Barnard, the general manager at Yorkdale, said in an interview.

Avoiding large crowds and long lines is a priority for the mall.

Barnard says they are hiring security staff to ensure shoppers are wearing masks and practising physical distancing. The mall will be monitoring occupancy closely to limit the amount of people inside if necessary.

For those coming to Yorkdale, the mall is encouraging shoppers to make their trips short as possible, with fewer person-to-person interactions. Barnard says that style of shopping has already become common during the pandemic.

"We are really noticing that people are shopping with purpose. So we are encouraging them to plan their trips, avoid peak periods, so they can have a safe and fast experience," she said.

The mall is also rolling out new digital tools to help with that, such as live text support so shoppers can communicate with staff who will help them choose the best time to shop, where to find what they're looking for and where to park.

A new interactive mapping tool will help shoppers plan their trip. Barnard says the goal is shopping "as quick and seamless as possible."

The mall also has a new service that allows the online purchasing of gift cards, to avoid having to go in person.

'Touchless' Santa experience

Given his age, weight and upcoming responsibilities, Santa Claus needs to be careful with his health.

Yorkdale is introducing Santa's Magic Mirror this year. Running from November until Christmas Eve, it's a "virtual experience that is completely touchless and safe," Barnard said.

Shoppers will get their photo taken in front of a screen and the image gets sent to them digitally. The service will be free.

Yorkdale Shopping Centre
Yorkdale Shopping Centre

Small retailers adjusting

Retailers of all sizes will be making adjustments for the 2020 holiday shopping season, according to Michael Leblanc, senior adviser with the Retail Council of Canada.

He says shoppers should expect fewer one-day sales or other similar events that would draw large groups of people to a store at the same time.

Retailers will continue to invest in hand sanitizer, masks and personal protective equipment, but Leblanc says the investment is a "burden" for smaller retailers. He says many are trying to encourage appointment shopping as an alternative.

Some may benefit from the shifted shopping habits the pandemic is causing. Leblanc says with many people working from home, smaller shops in residential areas may see more local business.

"That's a very likely outcome," he said. "If I'm not heading downtown to go to work, by definition I'm going to shop closer."

Leblanc says it's difficult to predict how successful a season retailers will have. The pandemic may hurt revenue, but some products, such as home furnishings and outdoor sporting goods, have seen a surge in demand.

Michael Leblanc
Michael Leblanc

He says it's also possible that with travel and other activities restricted, people may have more to spend on holiday gifts.

"I think everyone is hesitant to make any sort predictions or projections at this point," Leblanc said.

Online shopping

Already growing in popularity prior to the pandemic, online shopping continues to grow heading into the holidays. And that may become a problem as online retailers and parcel delivery services struggle to keep up with demand.

Last week ,Canada Post advised Canadians to do their online shopping early to avoid late delivery.

The online giant Amazon says it has spent billions of dollars this year to improve its delivery capacity. The company is hiring more than 10,000 seasonal employees in Canada and says it rolled out holiday deals in mid-October to encourage early shopping.

"We are confident in our ability to serve customers this holiday season," an Amazon spokeperson said in a statement to CBC Toronto.