Shoppers Have Unusual Boxing Day, With Most Retail Restricted Across Canada

Shoppers experienced a Boxing Day like no other on Saturday, with non-essential retail shuttered or restricted across much of the country to try and stem the spread of COVID-19.

While some donned masks and snow boots to brave outdoor lineups, many were watching their email inboxes instead, as some industry watchers say much of this year’s post-Christmas shopping will be replaced with internet searches and online orders.

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 amid 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.”

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.

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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.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 26, 2020.

With files from Brett Bundale in Halifax and Anita Balakrishnan in Toronto.

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