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Shoppers wait in line at an electronics store in Calgary, on Nov. 27, 2020.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

It was a Black Friday unlike any other.

Even as COVID-19 infections have surged in many parts of the country, shoppers across Canada formed long lineups at stores to secure pre-Christmas deals. But the stage is set for a chaotic holiday shopping season, with varied public-health restrictions meaning retailers in some communities may need to leave customers outside as stores down the road are free to welcome shoppers in.

The Toronto region played home to some of the day’s biggest contrasts. The parking lot near the Walmart at the city’s west-end Dufferin Mall was packed by noon, as shoppers walked past security guards who said they were monitoring numbers so as not to breach pandemic capacity restrictions. While it wasn’t the usual Black Friday frenzy, the store was busy as customers swerved around each other to examine discounted kettles, coffeemakers and sweaters.

But most smaller retailers in the mall were only allowed to open for pickup or delivery only. And around the corner, locked doors and For Lease signs adorned the storefronts of Bloor Street West. Pandemic restrictions announced mid-November for Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region forced most of the small retailers who survived the pandemic’s first eight months to rely on curbside pickup. On Friday, only a butcher shop and a handful of cafés drew in any passing customers.

“Health and safety is top of mind, but let’s be fair,” said Meg Marshall, manager of the local Bloorcourt business improvement area (BIA). “There’s a case to be made that we need to modify the restrictions – or else we’re going to lose more businesses.”

Across the city in Leslieville, the pain was also apparent on the unusually quiet streets. “We’re going to see dead streets. … We need to ensure we aren’t killing the main streets with these restrictions,” said Dominic Cobran, the Leslieville BIA’s manager.

Over the city’s northern border, long lineups wound around the exterior of Vaughan Mills mall as shopping centres outside of Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon were free to open. By midday, Vaughan Mills shoppers faced an average wait time of nearly an hour to enter the shopping centre, according to property manager Dylan Hart.

The Vaughan mall hired additional security for crowd control on Friday, including enforcing a one-in-one-out policy once the mall reached capacity. In consultation with regional health authorities, the mall enforced a capacity of roughly 20 per cent of its typical traffic.

“Everyone wants to shop, but we need to maintain a safe environment,” Mr. Hart said. Black Friday is typically the second-busiest day of the year at the mall – after Boxing Day – and has been growing in popularity.

Some have speculated that many of the shoppers flooding malls outside of Toronto came to escape the city’s restrictions.

“We’re disappointed in reports of people disregarding provincial pandemic mandates,” Margaret Cooper, retail director of marketing for property management company Cushman & Wakefield, said in a statement responding to questions about people shopping at malls outside their city. The company manages a number of malls, such as Pickering Town Centre near Toronto. “We encourage everyone to follow the advice of the province and their local municipality’s Chief Medical Officer.”

There are growing calls for provincial governments to ensure all retailers, especially smaller ones, can open with capacity restrictions – both to reduce crowds at larger stores and to give smaller retailers an opportunity to survive. Alberta and Nova Scotia enhanced COVID-19 restrictions this week, for example, but allowed for stores to remain open at no more than 25-per-cent capacity.

In Ontario, both the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and Peel Regional Council have been pushing the provincial government to implement similar rules. The Retail Council of Canada is calling for the same across the country. “It is much safer, because you’re not forcing people to go to another area of the region, or all go to the same mass merchant or grocery stores or pharmacy chain,” said Diane Brisebois, the council’s president and chief executive.

Retailers have already seen sales dip this year – even with the surge in summer shopping that followed the first wave of lockdowns. Many businesses spent money on safety measures in preparation for the holiday season, but now find themselves in lockdown. For those with seasonal inventory, there is a danger of missing the window to sell that merchandise before its value drops.

For stores that sell discretionary or specialty merchandise, the holiday period accounts for approximately 25 per cent to 40 per cent of annual sales, according the Retail Council of Canada.

But even in areas where stores are operational, some retailers have recognized that Black Friday carries too much risk to proceed with business as usual.

Earlier this month, Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. president and chief executive Greg Hicks said the company was planning “a more cautious approach” for holiday promotions, acknowledging the stores could not safely accommodate the kind of traffic they saw this time last year. Mr. Hicks said at the time that Canadian Tire planned to stagger its promotions over a longer period, rather than concentrating on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The company declined to answer questions about its approach to managing Black Friday crowds.

Other retailers have also extended their Black Friday sales to reduce crowding and allow more time for expected delays in shipping.

“As part of our focus on safety, we want to give our customers more choice over an extended period of time to minimize store visits this weekend and throughout the holidays,” Walmart Canada spokesperson Rob Nicol wrote in a statement Friday.

Businesses that sell wares online through the Ottawa-based e-commerce platform Shopify saw a significant boost this year. The company said that by Friday afternoon, it was processing as much as US$3-million in sales per minute globally.

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