Fewer shoppers look for deals as COVID cases overshadow Boxing Day

Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, December 26, 2021 2:43PM EST

TORONTO — Boxing Day shoppers seeking bargains found muted sales along with “we’re hiring” signs and only small groups of people allowed inside stores to maintain capacity limits due to the pandemic.

Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto opened its doors at 8 a.m. Sunday, with customers allowed in stores in small groups to ensure capacity limits were kept at 50 per cent.

Canada’s tight labour market had also left many retailers scrambling to attract workers ahead of the holiday shopping season.

Morne Viljoen, who recently moved to Toronto from South Africa, was out shopping Boxing Day for the first time in Canada.

He was looking for electronic and kitchen items “to set up his home,” he said, and began his shopping as soon as stores opened.

Viljoen said he felt “relatively safe” shopping early in the day with fewer people in stores.

Ontario province reported 9,826 new COVID-19 cases Boxing Day.

Retail Council of Canada spokeswoman Michelle Wasylyshen said in an interview Sunday that in-person shopping may take a hit this year as the highly infectious Omicron variant of the virus has been driving a surge in COVID-19 cases across much of Canada.

“Because of the new variant, I think that we will see a significant shift to online shopping today.”

Professor of operations management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management Opher Baron said he’s been noticing fewer Boxing Day promotions this year.

“We are all aware of supply issues since COVID started,” Baron said in an interview Sunday.

“There are delays in supply chains, which cause to have a little less of the stock people want for the holidays.”

Stores have had deals since November as “companies try to smooth the demand a little bit” which explains why fewer people were queuing at shopping malls on Sunday, he noted.

Wasylyshen said some retailers have been dealing with a glut of product over the last few months, which could mean bigger discounts as prices are cut to move product off shelves and make space for upcoming seasons.

“I think we’ll see a shift in that it’s not just a one-day event,” she said. “It will be a week-long event, and perhaps even longer because of the unexpected nature of when some products have arrived.”

But Baron said shopping continues to offer some escape and relief as Canadians navigate another pandemic wave.

“We are social animals so we need to go out, meet our families, make friends and this has been a long period where we are less exposed than typical,” Baron said. “Maybe some shopping will give us a better mood, at least for a little while.”

Karl Littler of Retail Council of Canada had said earlier that capacity restrictions in at least six provinces including Ontario and Quebec could potentially dissuade customers.

Ontario brought back public health restrictions last week to curb the spread of COVID-19. Restaurants, retailers, gyms and other indoor settings are only allowed to open at 50-per-cent capacity. Indoor social gatherings are also limited to a maximum of 10 people, while outdoor gatherings can only have 25.

David Voss was another early customer at the Eaton Centre looking for a DVD player. While he didn’t get the deal he wanted, he said he bought one anyway.

As a retail worker at a big box store who deals with customers regularly, Voss said he felt safe shopping with protocols in place.

Ahilan Ganesalingam was looking at the Eaton Centre and a nearby Best Buy for some last-minute gifts for his nephews and a co-worker.

He wanted to get his shopping done as fast as possible so he wasn’t around too many crowds, he said.

“For my nephews, I got some stuff from Best Buy and Foot Locker,” he said. “And I’m probably going to buy some cologne for my co-worker.”

— With files from Christopher Reynolds and Virginie Ann in Montreal, Danielle Edwards in Halifax.