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Inflation, longer sales season weigh on shopping habits this Black Friday

TORONTO — Gerick Abaca strolled the CF Toronto Eaton Centre on Friday morning gripping three shopping bags brimming with purchases he hoped would delight his family members this holiday season.
Shoppers track down Black Friday deals at the Eaton Centre in Toronto on Friday, Nov.24, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — Gerick Abaca strolled the CF Toronto Eaton Centre on Friday morning gripping three shopping bags brimming with purchases he hoped would delight his family members this holiday season.

"I'm hoping to beat the rush," the Toronto man said of why he set out to arrive at the mall at 7 a.m. for Black Friday shopping.

But more than an hour into his visit, he hadn't noticed the usual lines snaking out of stores or crowds anxious shoppers rushing about on the hunt for deals.

Perhaps the quieter turnout had to do with some not being early risers or maybe the deals were not as deep as some hoped for, he suggested.

"(They're) not good as before but I got what I came here for," Abaca said.

Despite the lack of major price cuts some wanted to see, the annual wave of discounts, door crashers and sales timed to the holiday season will be especially welcomed by Canadians who are feeling stressed about money this year. 

Inflation remains above the Bank of Canada's two per cent target, keeping prices high for household goods and big ticket purchases, even as higher interest rates are causing many homeowners' mortgage payments to balloon.

The confluence of factors is encouraging more Canadians to seek deals and even pare back their holiday spending.

Deloitte predicts the average Canadian shopper will spend $1,347 this holiday season,down 11 per cent from last year.

Roughly half of the more than 1,000 Canadians the consultancy company surveyed plan to buy only what their family needs this holiday season. Seventy-oneper cent will seek items on sale and 29 per cent will seek less expensive retailers to shop at.

"There’s a tug-of-war between joys versus necessities as a ... consumer is looking and waiting for promotions and value as well as buying closer-to-need," Oliver Chen, a Cowen analyst, said in an email to investors.

Kunal Diwakar, another Eaton Centre shopper, had mixed impressions of how good the deals were.

"Some of the shops are offering the discounts — which we often get some other time of year as well — but there are some other shops for which we don't get the sales at all," he said as he left the Apple store with a brand new iPad.

Later in the day, Diwakar said he would pick up holiday gifts and browse clothing before he and his friends would head to two other malls.

Dianne Debarros, a Sarnia, Ont., woman who runs a deal-hunting social media account on Instagram and TikTok, planned to spend Black Friday searching for discounted toys and laptops her kids will soon need for school.

She started her Christmas shopping in August but wanted to supplement her purchases on a trip to Real Canadian Superstore, where the chain is doling out loyalty program points in exchange for $100 in purchases in some of its departments.

"I feel like the last couple of years, the sales and the prices weren't very good, but this year the prices seem to be reasonable and the incentives are there," Debarros said. 

Shopify Inc., an Ottawa-based company whose e-commerce software powers thousands of retail businesses, said by mid-afternoon, its merchants were seeing average customers spend $172.80.

Top purchasing cities within the country included Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and the most popular product categories were clothing, jewelry, personal care, food items and beverages.

Black Friday dates back to the 1960s, when people would flock to Philadelphia near U.S. Thanksgiving and an annual army football game hosted in the city. Police reportedly had to work long hours and cope with an influx of sometimes rowdy visitors, inspiring them to begin calling the period Black Friday.

Retailers — hoping to lure in customers — eventually adopted the name and started using the date to offer sales. Over time, Black Friday sales spread across the country and in more recent years, to Canada.

Now, it's so routine for stores to offer Black Friday sales that many have extended the practice through the month of November.

But some argue the lengthier nature of the sales period has made the day itself less important to Canadians.

"The Black Friday day has lost its lustre," said Nick Muriella, vice-president of merchandising and supply chain at Toys "R" Us Canada.

His observation came a week before Black Friday. By then, many stores had already been offering sales since the start of November, so he concluded Black Friday has "just become another way to say sale."

Staples Canada began its sales on Nov. 1 because it noticed consumers shopping earlier.

"They're really trying to not leave it last minute," said Rachel Huckle, the retailer's president and chief operating officer.

"What we've heard from many customers is that when they've left it last minute, they're usually rushing and as a result, they're making maybe decisions that they wouldn't have made from a certain price point out of frankly, desperation."

To alleviate some of that rush, the chain introduced guarantees that some of its products will not see their prices drop further this holiday season, so shoppers can have confidence in their purchases.

Despite the elongated sales and the guarantee, Huckle still expects to see people pack her company's stores on Black Friday because many will see it as the day they ramp up their shopping.

Others, she said, will be "creatures of habit."

"I still think we're going to have those that are last minute, that will still continue to shop throughout the season."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2023.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press