Boxing Day sales threatened amid concerns over Omicron variant, retail experts say

The Omicron variant threatens to tamp down retail sales on Boxing Day as COVID-19 concerns rise along with case counts and pandemic restrictions.

Black Friday had already overtaken Dec. 26 as the most popular day for deals

The entrance to Ottawa's Rideau Centre mall on Tuesday. Retail experts fear concerns over the COVID-19 Omicron variant and further restrictions will affect sales on Boxing Day. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Boxing Day is set to take a beating from its younger rival this year.

While Black Friday had already overtaken Dec. 26 as the go-to shopping day of the season, pandemic restrictions and concerns over surging COVID-19 cases may deepen the sales disparity as more consumers stay home for the holidays, according to business experts.

The Retail Council of Canada's annual holiday survey in August found Nov. 26 could be the biggest shopping event of the year. It now says it will further overshadow Boxing Day after fears of the Omicron variant shot up in early December.

Capacity restrictions in at least six provinces, including Ontario and Quebec, will have a minimal impact on outlets that are accustomed to adapting to the measures, said retail council spokesperson Karl Littler. But none of those thresholds were in place for Black Friday, and both it and Boxing Day are associated with long lines and crowded floors, potentially dissuading customers.

"We really saw consumers were much more optimistic this year than they were last year. And they really had a desire to return to more normal types of holiday traditions," Michelle Wasylyshen, another retail council spokesperson, said in a phone interview.

"All of that is kind of in the gutter right now."

Worries over snarled global supply chains 

Customers have divergent aims on the two days, with gifts such as clothing, toys and food topping the list on Black Friday, while so-called self-purchases — particularly of electronics, appliances and furniture — define the day after Christmas.

However, those big-ticket items remain among the most affected by snarled global supply chains, making them harder to get.

"It really has been impacted by supply chain products arriving late, products maybe not arriving at all, retailers not knowing when the product was going to arrive," Wasylyshen said.

"Black Friday and Cyber Monday, they have really stolen some of the share of the Boxing Day shopping."

Drastically reduced cross-border travel over the last 21 months has redirected business to Canadian retailers and from the U.S. — where Black Friday originated — a trend that was already underway.

"There may have been a time maybe 10 years ago when Canadians would cross the border, hit the stores and get those in-store items, particularly when the dollar was at par," Kate Musgrove, director of shopping forum, said in a phone interview.

"Now it's not as easy to cross the border and the dollar is isn't really equitable with the U.S. dollar," resulting in more domestic purchases in late November.

Bargain hunters expected to go online

While the best deals are often found in stores — "if you're really into bargain hunting" — online buys will offer a tasty alternative for those looking to browse from the comfort of their couch, she added.

Philip Thampy, director of retail and Geek Squad operations at Best Buy Canada, said demand has been strong throughout the pandemic.

Although Black Friday has grown in recent years, Boxing Day is still one of the chain's biggest shopping events of the year.

"Boxing Day is still a very significant day and week of activity for us," Thampy said. "A lot of consumers look at electronics as a Boxing Day shopping opportunity."

Many people receive gift cards or cash for Christmas and look for Boxing Day sales to spend those amounts, he said.

Best Buy has planned ahead to ensure there is adequate inventory to meet Boxing Day demand, Thampy added.

With files from Brett Bundale