A cleaner wipes a glass panel at Toronto’s Eaton Centre Shopping mall on Saturday, March 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

12 weeks of Christmas — retailers speed up holiday plans in a daunting year

Prepare to buy your boughs of holly early this year — or just have them delivered — as store owners adjust to a holiday season that may prove far from jolly.

Retailers are ramping up plans for a transformed Christmas shopping season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with strategies to draw buyers early, step up their e-commerce game and convince consumers to buy gifts for far-flung friends and family.

Indigo Books & Music Inc. is already rolling out cards and advent calendars. Mountain Equipment Co-op has seen a sales surge for winter products such as snowsuits, which it aims to load onto shelves ahead of schedule alongside snowshoes and skis to spread out the holiday rush.

Hudson’s Bay Co. will launch its yuletide collection of clothing and decor six weeks early at the start of October, while some Canadian Tire stores are already aglow with Christmas lights and baubles.

For Indigo CEO Heather Reisman, flexibility and health awareness are top of mind.

In the wake of 15 store closures since March, the chain has revamped its customer experience with private shopping hours “for people who may feel particularly compromised,” she said. Loyalty program members can visit outside of normal operating hours — typically before 10 a.m. and after 9 p.m. — to browse at will, free from crowds.

The 12 weeks leading up to New Year’s Day usually account for about one-third of annual sales, she said.

“It’s not possible to fully make up for almost three months of almost 200 physical stores closed (earlier this year)… so our goal is to get as close to last year’s sales as possible, recognizing that it will depend on customers spreading out their time.”

Shipping and logistics continue to be upended as the pandemic’s second wave begins to break. Fashion retailer Simons is investing millions in temporary shipping and packing stations to meet the expected spike in demand for online orders. However, CEO Peter Simons doubts the 180-year-old department store can reach previous revenue peaks for the season, which typically make up 40 per cent of sales for the year.

E-commerce poses a “huge logistical challenge,” he said, with online sales already tripling. “The complete infrastructure will be very taxed.”

The pandemic prompted Simons to postpone the opening of a $215-million automated distribution centre in the Montreal area. As a result, it will have to spend millions more on a hiring surge, already underway, to pack and sort online purchases through December, he said.

While some companies are relying on online deals and curbside pickup, London Drugs is bulking up its physical presence. It plans to construct queue shelters at more than half of its 82 stores by mid-October, including metal-roofed structures bolted to buildings to shield Prairie customers from wind and snow.

Real estate company Cadillac Fairview hopes to shorten indoor lineups by registering retailers on its appointment-booking app. The platform, launched recently as a pilot with jewelry chain Pandora at Toronto’s Eaton Centre, lets customers schedule a time to swing by the store without having to worry about long queues or crowded aisles.

Companies like Apple Inc. have relied on fluid customer appointment systems for years, but Cadillac Fairview hopes to bring less tech-savvy bricks-and-mortar vendors on board across its 19 shopping centres before Christmas.

Michael LeBlanc, a senior adviser at the Retail Council of Canada, says consumers may have more spending money on hand after shelling out less on vacations, commutes and lunchtime cappuccinos.

“Our message to Canadians for the holidays is: shop early and shop often. This is not the year to wait. And retailers are telling me they’re seeing signs of gift buying already,” LeBlanc said.

But a holiday season that features fewer store visits and gatherings of friends and family may see a corresponding decrease in impulse buys and lavish gift giving, with the unemployment rate lingering above 10 per cent and rent and loan payment deferrals set to expire.

More e-commerce means fewer whimsical purchases in the aisles. But online browsing offers plenty of impulse options as well, with retailers able to suggest products based on previous searches and purchases.

“That’s not as smooth online as we’d like… But that’s where you’ll have to fight this game, online,” LeBlanc said.

“I can’t think of a more important season for all of us, and then maybe that’s reflected in sending people gifts online. Merchants are hoping that will be the case… but we just don’t really know.”

Reitmans Canada Ltd., which is restructuring after the insolvent women’s apparel retailer was granted creditor protection in May, hopes to claw back customers with online style sessions by appointment for those hunting for personalized tips.

More casual winter wear will be among the threads on offer as telecommuting remains the norm. “We definitely have increased our cozy assortment,” said Reitmans president Jackie Tardif.

Seasonal outfits and items will hit the shelves early at various retailers across the country as COVID-19 upends the annual shopping surges on Black Friday and Boxing Day. But unless the pandemic returns with a vengeance — a real possibility — in-person purchases will not disappear entirely.

“We’re social animals. We’re tactile, social beings. The pandemic has perhaps made us realize what a privilege that is,” said Peter Simons.

“But it hasn’t taken away the hunger or the need for that contact, and I believe that will remain.”

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