Ontario retailers adjust to new rules, non-essential goods off-limits to shoppers

Retailers in Ontario are adjusting to new lockdown restrictions with stores like grocers, discount and big box chains roping off non-essential items from underwear to calculators.

The rules, similar to those rolled out earlier in the pandemic in provinces including Quebec and Manitoba, have left some aisles of goods off-limits to in-person shopping.

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Customer photos posted on social media show entire sections of stores cordoned off with caution tape, plastic sheeting, pallets, signs or even essential goods such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Retail analyst Bruce Winder said the new rules help level the playing field for retailers.

"It's absolutely more fair and levels the playing field — even it causes some confusion," he said Friday.

In previous lockdowns, stores like bookstores and flower shops were restricted to curbside pickup and delivery but shoppers could buy books and flowers in person at grocery and big box stores.

The situation prompted small business owners to argue that the rules benefited larger retailers while hurting smaller, independent operators.

The latest emergency measures enacted by the province reinforce the message that people should only be shopping for essential items, Winder said.

"We really need to get (the virus) under control so these restrictions are fair even if they inconvenience people."

Yet customers have reported situations where items that are essential — such as face masks — are in an aisle that has been blocked off.

"It is a bit loosey-goosey," said Lisa Hutcheson, managing partner at consulting firm J.C. Williams Group. "Retailers have had to adapt pretty quickly so it does seem to be a bit all over of the map."

But she said the restrictions send a clear message.

"The intention is really to make things as fair as possible and limit shopping to the essentials," Hutcheson said. "It may be frustrating for some shoppers but we're really in a crisis now."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 9, 2021.

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