Bargain hunters crowded into malls and retail outlets Thursday, offering weather-affected retailers in Ontario and Quebec a boost after a damaging ice storm kept some shoppers away during the days before Christmas.
Retailers in Southern Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada were hit by harsh winter weather that began last weekend, causing power outages and keeping some people from trekking out to finish last-minute shopping. The Retail Council of Canada estimates that Canadian retailers make about one-fifth of all sales in the month of December alone. Many retailers hoped to make up for the losses on Boxing Day. In Atlantic Canada, however, most stores are not allowed to open on the holiday.
Robert Soroka, who teaches marketing at Concordia University in Montreal, said retailers typically do better in the weeks leading up to Christmas, before they are forced to lower their prices to compete for bargain-hunting customers. "After Boxing Day, you're talking lower margin sales, simply because most everything is marked down," Prof. Soroka said.
That makes it more difficult for retailers who lost out on pre-Christmas sales to make up the difference, he added.
Toronto's Yorkdale Shopping Centre lost power in some of its stores on Sunday as a result of the ice storm. But general manager Anthony Casalanguida said things were back to normal on Boxing Day.
"There are always circumstances that exist that we can't have any control over," he said. "I think a lot of people were taken aback by the ice storm and the impact that it has had, but at the same time I think people want to go out and try to engage in normal activities."
Mr. Casalanguida said some people were already waiting outside when he arrived at the mall at 5 a.m. on Thursday, and by the time stores opened three hours later, about 6,000 people had arrived to start their Boxing Day shopping. He said he expected the mall to do 10 per cent better in Boxing Day traffic than it has in previous years.
Dave Wilkes, a senior vice-president from the Retail Council of Canada, said he was pleased to see that the weather had improved in time for Boxing Day. Still, he said post-Christmas shopping is unlikely to compensate for the negative effects of the recent ice storm – particularly when it comes to smaller retailers and grocers.
"It's very difficult to make up for any time that they're unable to open or their customers are unable to get to their stores," he said. "And then for grocers, for example, a lot of the purchases are made the weekend prior to the holiday for perishable items … so those days that their customers are unable to make those types of purchases – they're gone forever."
At the height of the storm, an estimated 300,000 Toronto customers were without power, according to Toronto Hydro, and about 48,000 were still waiting for their power to return on Thursday afternoon. In total, about 74,000 customers in Ontario, 7,000 in Quebec and 19,000 in New Brunswick still didn't have power on Boxing Day.
Mr. Wilkes said early figures suggest that December sales were strong leading into the last weekend before Christmas, when the storm hit, but he added that final numbers won't be available until the New Year.
"The good weather is welcome, the fact that the majority of the power has been restored is also welcome, so we're very much hoping for a strong sales day," he said Thursday.
Elliott Chun, a spokesman for Future Shop, said the first people in line at both the downtown Toronto and downtown Vancouver locations had waited since 11 p.m. on Christmas for the stores' 6 a.m. opening. By the time they opened their doors, there were approximately 100 lined up in Vancouver and 200 in Toronto, he said.
Weather was not a factor for most shoppers in Western Canada during the week before Christmas, and a mild day in Vancouver saw droves of shoppers crowd the city's downtown streets on Boxing Day.
"It's a bit overwhelming," said Rana Hazarat, 23, who cautiously entered the fray around noon. "Sometimes I feel like the lines kind of discourage you from even shopping. You kind of have to do a cost-benefit analysis on the lines and if what you have in your hand is really worth it. That leather jacket can wait."
With a report from Oliver Moore in Toronto