COVID-19 upends usual door-crashing Black Friday in Vancouver

Pacific Centre, Best Buy, Comor, and London Drugs will be keeping items on sale for a longer period of time to keep staff and customers safe

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      Black Friday started early on Vancouver’s West 4th Avenue this year.

      Rather than falling on the first day after the American Thanksgiving holiday, on November 27, shoppers were lined up on the sidewalk for several evenings earlier. That’s because Comor–Go Play Outside began its blowout sale of skiing and snowboarding gear on November 20, with the deals continuing until Monday (November 30).

      It’s a similar story all over the Lower Mainland. One example is CF Pacific Centre. General manager Lillian Tummonds told the Straight by phone that hours have been extended over the holiday season to give customers a chance to visit in nonpeak times.

      “A lot of our retailers have great deals ongoing right now,” Tummonds said. “It’s so everybody is not all jamming in on Black Friday. Obviously, this is not a typical year, so we’re trying to expand the experience over a longer period of time.”

      Part of the reason is that consumers will feel safer having more space to move through the mall.

      But according to retail consultant David Ian Gray, a partner at DIG360, it’s also about human resources.

      Employees feel frazzled when they’re bombarded with customers, especially during a pandemic. And big retailers believe that long periods with little business afterward isn’t the best use of staff time.

      “They’re hoping it’s more of a steady state,” Gray said. “Together with the Retail Council of Canada, they’ve actually been promoting that idea of starting your shopping early but keeping it on an even keel through the season.”

      However, Gray acknowledged that there’s no guarantee that consumers will go along with this notion.

      Then there’s the issue of pandemic safety. At Pacific Centre, as in many other shopping locations, there are plenty of signs, arrows, and hand-sanitizing stations on the premises. Tummonds said extra staff are on the floor to ensure customers abide by a provincial health order to wear masks in public indoor spaces. Those who don’t have face coverings can pick them up for free at the mall’s guest-services area.

      “We obviously have all the COVID protocols in place,” Tummonds said.

      Here's the new Vancouver reality when it comes to holiday shopping, courtesty of artist Mark "Atomos" Pilon.
      Mark "Atomos" Pilon

      Electronics giants go head to head

      It’s a similar story at Best Buy and London Drugs, two retailers that normally do a booming business in electronics on Black Friday.

      For the first time ever, Best Buy launched its holiday promotions in October, both online and in-store, to spread the demand out over a long period and prevent Black Friday crowds.

      The company’s Canadian arm says that if the price of an item on special is lowered before Black Friday, Best Buy will refund the difference. And, of course, the company insisted that safety is its highest priority.

      B.C.-based London Drugs issued a news release on November 23 urging its customers to shop for deals early. And it will match competitors’ advertised prices for up to 30 days.

      It also declared that safety was its highest priority. And that’s being accomplished through a variety of measures, including decreasing store capacity, installing Plexiglas barriers, increasing physical distancing, and implementing hourly sanitization.

      “Taking care of our customers and keeping our communities safe remains our top priority,” London Drugs president and chief operating officer Clint Mahlman said in the release.

      “Ahead of the holiday shopping season, pandemic-related safety protocols at London Drugs are paramount. If you visit your local London Drugs, please help us by maintaining physical distance, wearing a mask and washing your hands thoroughly before, during and after you visit. And please stay home if you have any signs of illness or have been exposed to someone who has.”

      Retail consultant David Ian Gray says the most pessimistic retailers might be pleasantly surprised by what unfolds this holiday season.

      Important to be seen to be safe

      Retail consultant Gray said it’s critical that retailers maintain safety protocols because to do otherwise could get them shut down by health authorities.

      “It’s not just being safe. It’s being seen to be safe,” Gray said. “It’s got to be both. You can’t just fake it, because the damage to your business could be astronomical.”

      For obvious reasons—namely, a pandemic—everyone expects that sales will shift further online this year. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a disaster for business, according to Gray.

      He said there was an uptick in sales in certain categories in the summer during the pandemic, notably home décor, games, and bicycles. And there’s a possibility that home-oriented goods and winter sports gear could move off the shelves at this time of year, in part because people are spending less money on vacations and dining out.

      “If the retailer’s expectation is low and dire, I think what they’ll find is it will be better than expected—but not as good as last year,” Gray said.