Experts predict pandemic will speed up shift to online holiday shopping

It is Black Friday, which normally signals the start of Christmas shopping season. But retail analysts expect stores to be a lot quieter today with the COVID-19 pandemic and more northerners going online to cross names off their gift lists.

Only a handful of stores opened early for Black Friday, instead spreading out sales over a few weeks

New restrictions on shopping during Ontario's new stay-at-home order could see more workers stay off the job. (Erik White/CBC)

Jody Prato was laying awake on Black Friday morning, scanning online deals when she came across some great in-store bargains. 

So she put on her shoes and her mask and headed out to the Walmart in Sudbury's south end to get some Christmas gifts before the sun had even come up. 

"I figured if I came early too that would be a good thing if there were a lot of people in the stores and of course I'm wearing my mask," says Prato.

There were a few dozen shoppers waiting for the store to open at 6 a.m. but it was a small enough crowd to make Prato feel easier.

She's been avoiding shopping in person during the pandemic and has bought most of her Christmas gifts online.

"You know what with everything going on it's just easier, comes right to your door," Prato says. 

Krazy Krazy in Timmins is hoping to not see big crowds for Black Friday this year and instead have people spread out their Christmas shopping over several weeks. (Krazy Krazy)

In Timmins, electronics and appliance store Krazy Krazy is actually hoping customers will not crowd in this year. 

"A Black Friday, historically has been lineups at the door," says owner Craig Salmonson. 

"We're hoping, as strange as it sounds in retail, that we don't have that and it's more spread out throughout the day."

He says sales have been up about 10 per cent over the first few weeks of November and have been strong through the pandemic, especially on appliances and computer accessories. 

Salmonson says he isn't worried about a move to more online shopping, thinking customers will want the hands-on experience to come back after COVID-19. You can shop online at Krazy Krazy, but he says its a tiny part of their business. 

He says one of the biggest problems has been getting more products on the shelves, with supply chains from the U.S. and overseas disrupted during the pandemic.

Several local retailers say they've lost sales when they don't have items in stock and have to ask customers to come back. 

A man wheels two giant televisions out of the Walmart in the south end of Sudbury just a few minutes after the store opened at 6 a.m. for Black Friday. (Erik White/CBC )

In years past, the Best Buy store in Sudbury saw some of the biggest Black Friday lineups.

But this year id didn't open early and is instead has been offering holiday bargains for the last few weeks, with the hope of keeping crowds thin and keeping shoppers and salespeople safe from the coronavirus. 

Sudbury store leader Lynn Loiselle says her 60 or so employees have been very busy, especially with some online orders now being picked up in store.

"I don't think retail is gone," she says. 

"We just have to think differently. "

Retail analysts expect stores to generally be a lot quieter for Black Friday and throughout the Christmas season with the COVID-19 pandemic pushing more shoppers online.

"That is attributable a bit to COVID, but is just really being accelerated by COVID, so we're seeing that trend shift a bit faster than we've seen before," says Myles Gooding, national retail leader with PWC Canada.

He says their research shows Canadians will likely spend about the same on Christmas gifts this year, with those who have been off work during the pandemic spending less and those who haven't taken an income hit spending more on presents and less on travel and entertainment.

Gooding says in the years ahead it will become more important for local retailers to "leverage" their websites and social media pages to make sales, while national chains will focus on more specialized "in-store experiences" in larger centres, which could mean fewer retail jobs in northern Ontario. 

"Chain retailers will look strategically at where to put those centres of experience," he says. 

"Having a store in every location the way we see it today where you're a bit over-stored, that's going to balance and shift a bit."

In order to control the lineup, Walmart in Sudbury's south end had shoppers wait inside this Black Friday for the sales to officially open at 6 a.m. (Erik White/CBC )

After some 20 years in business, the Backyard Birder in Sudbury is just setting up online sales now.

Co-owner Danielle Audette says the early days of the pandemic when customers interested in curbside pickup couldn't see their products on their website is what finally inspired them to get into e-commerce.

"Right now it's like hurry up and get it done. We're so behind on that," says Audette. 

"I wish we had done it years ago. We would be more comfortable right now if we had a better online presence."

Like most retailers, she says they usually make their year on Christmas gifts. Audette says so far sales are steady and believes its thanks to a push for Sudburians to shop local. 

Black Friday sales in Sudbury used to see long lines of shoppers waiting for stores to open, like this queue of over 100 outside the Target in 2013. (Erik White/CBC)

Xcite Entertainment Solutions onwer Brandon Gough is offering some Black Friday deals on video game accessories from his online Sault Ste. Marie shop.

He also helps small businesses build websites and says some stores in the Sault are just trying to survive the pandemic and don't have extra money to invest in a larger online presence. 

"There's always going to be those businesses that are otherwise forced to operate online or close altogether," Gough says. 

"I hope the in-person shopping experience will return."


Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to


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