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Shoppers search for Boxing Day sales as pandemic restricts retail options

Last Updated Dec 26, 2020 at 8:41 pm EST

Shoppers donned masks and boots to brave outdoor lineups in parts of Canada on Saturday, while others turned to the internet to take part in a Boxing Day that bore little resemblance to the holiday of years past.

With non-essential retail shuttered or restricted across swaths of the country in a bid to stem the spread of COVID-19, some industry watchers said much of this year’s post-Christmas shopping would be replaced with internet searches and online orders.

But in Alberta, where retail remained open with stores limited to 15 per cent of their capacity, business was brisk at Canada’s largest indoor shopping centre, West Edmonton Mall.

Kaitlyn Krogen thought she was prepared when she showed up at the mall at 1 p.m. with an appointment to get into Lululemon at 5 p.m., allowing her to bypass the lineup outside the store.

But she wasn’t expecting a queue to get into the mall itself, and she’d left her coat in the car.

“I think everyone’s doing their part to be safe like wearing masks and social distancing where they can, so I think we’re all doing our best,” she said when asked whether she was concerned about COVID-19.

Inside the sprawling complex, rivers of masked shoppers followed direction-of-travel arrows on the floors, passing other shoppers waiting their turn in lines to enter stores.

“It’s much harder to shop than last year,” said Rwan Alzoughoul, who was waiting in line outside Zara inside the mall.

Still, the lure of bargains outweighed the inconvenience of lineups and masks, and Alzoughoul said she wasn’t particularly concerned about the pandemic risk.

“Just believe in God. Everything happens for a reason,” she said as the line inched forward.

A queue of a dozen deal hunters outside Best Buy in downtown Toronto wouldn’t be unusual in a normal year, but shopper Hao Chen said he was surprised to see it during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But once he got in line, Chen noted that the retailer was running a tight ship, with employees keeping shoppers apart and ensuring everyone in line had already placed an online order. Inside the Eaton Centre mall, Best Buy and other stores were empty apart from employees, as security guards kept scarce visitors focused on curbside pickup and takeout.

There were no window shoppers to be seen, said Chen, because “there’s nothing in the windows to shop.”

Ontario’s provincewide lockdown began Saturday, joining Quebec and Manitoba in closing non-essential retail, while much of the rest of the country has curtailed in-store capacity.

In a normal year, Chen said he would be in Chicago with family over Christmas. But as a recent graduate, he said he decided to spend this holiday trying to save money on a vacuum instead. Chen said he ordered online and only came out to the mall “boots to ground” for a pickup because his apartment isn’t a great place to accept deliveries.

“I’ll take my vacuum and be back in my apartment, hopefully, in 30 minutes,” he said.

Despite the restrictions forcing most shopping online, there will be fire-sale prices on some items, said Farla Efros, president of HRC Retail Advisory. She said retailers don’t want to get stuck with a backlog of holiday and seasonal inventory and also need to shore up their balance sheets in the face of mounting lockdowns and restrictions.

“People are buying a lot of gift cards this year and not the traditional wrapped gift so there’s an excess of inventory and some pent-up demand,” says Lisa Hutcheson, managing partner at consulting firm J.C. Williams Group.

Some politicians urged shoppers to look locally for Boxing Day deals amid the restrictions. Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley encouraged shoppers to check out local establishments – “socially distanced, of course.” Maurizio Bevilacqua, mayor of Vaughan, Ont., said residents should show support by shopping online and ordering food.

But shoppers were few and far between at boutiques in Toronto’s Danforth neighbourhood. Andrew Koppel of Kops Records said shoppers have been supportive of local businesses, lining up at nearby shops on Christmas Eve and Black Friday. But he said he purposely did not offer discounts on Saturday to avoid lines and promote health measures.

“Boxing Day is quite non-existent for us,” said Koppel. “Once everything is opened back up again, we might do something to make up for it. Maybe it will be Boxing Day in March. We’ll figure something out to reward our patient customers.”

It was a snowy, windy Boxing Day morning on Masson street in Montreal, which was nearly deserted when stores opened around 10 a.m.

Few stores could welcome customers due to Quebec’s lockdown measures that include closing non-essential retail stores from Christmas Day until at least Jan. 11.

Electronics store La Source, which can sell only essential tech products, was still waiting for its first client of the day.

“Normally, it’s busy. We have a lineup. But since we’ve opened, we’ve had zero clients,” manager Hakim Ouchenir told The Canadian Press.

The few passers-by on the street, including several families pushing strollers, said they were out to get some fresh air rather than to shop.

“We made all our purchases before the holidays,” Maude Lemire said. “Now we’re enjoying family time.”

Shoppers in Richmond, B.C., gathered in the rain to brave the line for the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet Vancouver Airport mall.

At one point in the afternoon, vehicle traffic stretched back to the highway as drivers waited to manoeuvre through the parking lot.

The outdoor outlet mall, like others in the region, placed capacity restrictions on how many shoppers would be allowed in at a time as part of an effort to control lineups in front of stores. Those wanting to go inside had to wait in a line outside the mall before being allowed in.

“We were about to do some shopping, but as you can see the line, there’s no more willingness,” said Ramanjeet Dhillon, who went to the mall with friends to shop for Nike shoes.

“I think it’s just better to go home right now.”

Shoppers who arrived earlier in the day fared better.

“We didn’t wait in line,” said Spencer Sun, who arrived at the mall at 10 a.m.

Sun and his friend Jack Yen said they both felt the lines inside the shopping area moved quickly, but found that many sizes for clothes and shoes had already been sold out.

Ally Day, the mall’s marketing manager, said in a statement that the number of days for its Boxing Day sale had been extended to help shoppers.