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

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, confirmed more than 1,000 cases over the weekend Monday afternoon. File photo
COVID-19: Central zone active cases up Monday

‘We’ve now crossed the tipping point,’ says Hinshaw

Right, Ambassador of Hungary to Canada, Her Excellency Dr. Maria Vass-Salazar, lays a wreath at St. Michael’s RC Cemetery in Manfred, Ponoka County on Oct. 25. (Emily Jaycox/Bashaw Star)
Wreath laying ceremony held in Manfred

Ceremony marks 64th anniversary of Hungarian revolution, honours settlers

Alberta has 3,651 active cases of COVID-19. (File photo)
432 new COVID cases sets another record Friday

Central zone holds steady at 126 active cases

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau. (Black Press Media)
VIDEO: One day until B.C. voters go to the polls in snap election defined by pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan’s decision to call an election comes more than a year ahead of schedule and during a pandemic

Cases in Ponoka (East Ponoka County) as of Oct. 27. (alberta.ca)
Diagnosed cases of COVID-19 at three Ponoka businesses

Town ‘strongly encouraging’ residents to wear non-medical masks in public

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau says pandemic ‘really sucks,’ and that Christmas gatherings are up in the air

The prime minister encouraged residents to continue to follow the advice of local health authorities

The Williams Lake Indian Band is stipulating no-go zones for mushroom picking in areas burned by last summer’s wildfires. 100 Mile Free Press photo
Who controls mushroom harvesting on Indigenous lands?

‘We don’t necessarily know where the mushrooms grow, how old the stands need to be, those types of things.’

Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada/USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke
U.S. election results one factor that could impact immigration to Canada next year

The survey polled 1,523 Canadians between Oct. 23 and Oct. 25

Alberta’s provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Monday July 6, 2020. The Alberta government is hoping to get more Albertans employed by moving to limit the number and type of temporary foreign workers it allows into the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Alberta to limit temporary foreign worker program to save jobs for Albertans

Temporary foreign workers already in the province won’t be affected

Submitted
Montana First Nations councillor gives back to youth

Has pledged 10 per cent of his salary for youth programming

Royal Alexandra Hospital front-line workers walk a picket line after walking off the job in a wildcat strike in Edmonton, on Monday, October 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta labour board orders health-care staff who walked off the job to go back to work

Finance Minister Travis Toews said in a news release that he was pleased with the labour board’s decision

Wetaskiwin Hospital staff join AUPE walk outs across the province Monday Oct. 26, 2020. Shaela Dansereau/ The Pipestone Flyer.
City of Wetaskiwin health-care workers strike in protest of province-wide cuts

Wetaskiwin Hospital staff join other front line hospital workers across the province in walk-outs.

Most Read