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While customer response to Black Friday discounting in Canadian stores appeared uneven, online demand was relatively strong as a growing array of merchants offered wider e-commerce promotions than in the past. (CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
While customer response to Black Friday discounting in Canadian stores appeared uneven, online demand was relatively strong as a growing array of merchants offered wider e-commerce promotions than in the past. (CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Black Friday traffic fails to impress as shoppers move online Add to ...

The kickoff to the holiday shopping season started in earnest on Black Friday as shoppers lined up early at Toys “R” Us, Target and other stores for deep discounts – another signal that consumers are bargain hunting.

While customer response to Black Friday discounting in Canadian stores appeared uneven, online demand was relatively strong as a growing array of merchants offered wider e-commerce promotions than in the past. Now, they are counting on Black Friday hype to bolster business in what is expected to be a tough holiday period amid burgeoning competition.

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“There’s definitely some shopping activity, but not as much as I thought there would be,” Raymond Shoolman, senior consultant with retail specialist DIG360 Consulting in Vancouver, said on Friday.

“But Canadians are working today, they’re not off like Americans. A lot of the activity will probably come on the weekend,” he added.

Black Friday, a traditional day of retail bargains in the United States to launch holiday shopping, has reached critical mass in Canada, with retailers ranging from discounter Wal-Mart Canada Corp. to luxury chain Holt Renfrew & Co. touting sales. But the jury is still out on whether the promotional weekend will help spur more sales for retailers in the make-or-break holiday period.

South of the border, where Americans get a four-day Thanksgiving weekend that began Thursday, the Black Friday sales seemed to get off to a sluggish start. That’s despite there being almost a week less of shopping time before Christmas, compared with last year.

At U.S. stores, “crowds showed up on Thanksgiving evening, but not to the extent as previous years,” said Jharonne Martis, an analyst with Thomson Reuters IBES. “Anecdotally, this Black Friday has seen a decrease in mall traffic.”

She said most U.S. retailers offered 50-per-cent discounts, which was less than in previous years. While consumers already have begun their holiday shopping, “most indicated that they expect retailers to offer juicier promotions later in the holiday season. As a result, many are waiting … to finalize their shopping list.”

Even so, Black Friday events in Canada went off without the violence that tends to mark the usual frenzy in the United States, where malls beefed up security. Still, there were a number of incidents, including an alleged shoplifting case near Chicago that resulted in a man being shot by police after dragging an officer with his car, according to Associated Press; both were taken to hospital with injuries. In Utah, police said at least two people were knocked to the ground by a crowd of Wal-Mart shoppers jockeying for a $49 tablet computer.

In Canada, sales were weaker in Ontario than elsewhere, reflective of fiercer competition in that province, said Liz McDonald, vice-president of marketing at Toys “R” Us Canada. The toy store knocked 50-per-cent off the price of 500 items, although one of the hottest sellers, an Air Hogs Atmosphere remote control toy, was at the regular $29.99. Toys “R” Us e-commerce sales were better than expected, Ms. McDonald added.

The softness in Ontario is “consistent with what we’ve seen with our sales over the last seven or eight months,” she added. U.S. discounter Target Corp. launched its first stores in Ontario, and Wal-Mart Canada Corp. has expanded in that province.

Wal-Mart Canada expected almost two million visitors to its online selling site, which was three times more people than than last year, said spokesman Alex Roberton. Between midnight and 1 a.m., customers placed more than 4,000 orders, he said.

At Sears Canada Inc., online sales jumped between 10 per cent and 20 per cent when the sales began on “Black Thursday,” compared with last year, said spokesman Vincent Power. Toy sales rose 69 per cent, jewellery sales climbed 20 per cent, women’s wear was up 12 per cent, and major appliances, 5 per cent, he said.

Follow on Twitter: @MarinaStrauss

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