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It’s a Subdued Black Friday at Retailers Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

November 27, 2020 2:45 PM | The Canadian Press

By Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

Black Friday Sale

A shopper is shown walking by a store display advertising a Boxing Day sale in Ottawa on Dec. 26, 2013. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

Would-be Black Friday shoppers appear to have heeded public health warnings, with little crowding at stores across the country against a backdrop of rising COVID-19 cases.

Many brick-and-mortar stores were deserted compared with the usual crowds and fanfare of the one-day sales bonanza that traditionally launches the holiday shopping season.

Some stores had short lineups when they opened, but most remained under capacity limits throughout the morning.

Discounted big ticket items at big-box stores — often among the first products to sell out on Black Friday — were still well-stocked in many locations by midday.

It’s a sign that staggered Black Friday promotions, which many retailers began rolling out as early as October, as well as the push to offer more sales online has helped curb in-store shopping.

Still, some consumers across the country opted to shop in brick-and-mortar stores.

In Halifax, Daniel Smith said he decided to check out the sales at a local Walmart and was surprised to find no lineup outside and very few people in the aisles.

“I can’t believe there aren’t more people here, it’s reassuring,” he said, though he added that the retail event is usually “tame” compared to the United States.

Smith’s shopping cart was filled with toys, like L.O.L. Surprise balls and a Rainbocorns slime milkshake.

“It’s a good time to get Christmas presents,” he said. “There were some good deals and I’ve got a bunch of nieces and nephews to buy for.”

Also in Halifax, a Best Buy worker described the day as “pretty chill,” while a Canadian Tire clerk said the only item that had sold out at that location was a cat playset. She said Thursday — when the store’s weeklong sales started — was busier.

By mid-morning, one of the only lineups observed in Halifax was at a Tim Hortons drive-thru, as consumers observed the city’s 25 per cent retail capacity restrictions.

The slow start to Black Friday on the East Coast was mirrored across much of the country.


In Montreal, the city’s popular downtown shopping district along Ste-Catherine St. and the Eaton Centre mall appear subdued.

Still, a few stores had small lineups, and customers at one shoe store said they’d waited since Thursday night to get deals on Nikes.

Meanwhile, one Toronto-area mall was no busier than a typical pre-pandemic weekend.

Only the public health protocols differentiated the scene at Mapleview Shopping Centre in Burlington, Ont., from a usual day.

Staff were stationed at each entrance to the building and at central elevators, making sure shoppers kept a safe distance.

Only a few shops — generally the ones advertising storewide promotions without the usual “up to” and “almost everything” caveats — saw customers lining up to enter.

Connie Johnson, a local resident toting a lone shopping bag from the women’s clothing store Laura, said she hit the stores early in a bid to beat crowds.

“I’m always concerned about going somewhere, with the virus, but you have to go out and do some things, and I do go to the grocery store and the drugstore, and today I figured I’d go and take a chance,” she said from behind her reusable mask.

Parts of Western Canada also saw some shoppers out and about, but fewer than in previous years.

Ten minutes before a Best Buy store in northwest Calgary was set to open, there was nobody in line.

When the store opened, about 25 customers, socially distanced, were lined up waiting to get in. A sign on the door announced a limit of 164 customers and a digital check-in where people would be texted when there was space for them to shop.

“It’s a smaller crowd than I was expecting,” said Dean Rawley, who was planning to use a gift card to take advantage of the Black Friday deals.

Even with a surge in COVID-19 cases and new restrictions imposed on numbers entering businesses, Rawley wasn’t concerned about venturing out.

“Not particularly. I’m not too worried about it,” he said. “If something happens. It happens.”

In Manitoba, the province urged people to stay home and shop online, saying that provincial workers will be “out in full force on Black Friday” ensuring public health orders are adhered to.

Retail analysts say the bulk of today’s purchases will probably be online.

Eric Morris, head of retail at Google Canada, said e-commerce in Canada has doubled during the pandemic.

He said given ongoing lockdowns and in-store capacity limits, online sales are expected to be strong today and remain heightened over the holiday shopping season.

Black Friday, which started as a post-Thanksgiving sale in the United States, has gained in popularity in Canada in recent years.

It has also become an increasingly important sales event for retailers, along with Cyber Monday, overshadowing Boxing Day.

Robin Sahota, managing director and Canadian retail lead for professional services firm Accenture, said retailers might be saving some special discounts for Cyber Monday.

“It’s going to be a day where retailers look to add some sweeteners to entice consumers, particularly with the pull forward of Black Friday,” he said. “I think folks will be seeking out something special on Cyber Monday.”

– With files from Nicole Thompson in Burlington, Jacob Serebrin in Montreal and Bill Graveland in Calgary.

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