Victoria retailers see light and dark this season

Grim, dark, buoyant and optimistic. Those are some of the descriptors being thrown around the city these days to describe the retail landscape as Black Friday sales hit across North America.

Normally a time for retailers of all stripes to make hay — and in some cases a chance to bank a massive chunk of their annual revenue — the run-up to Christmas this year has a very different feel to it thanks to the pandemic.

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“It’s grim,” said Dale Olsen, owner of Outlooks for Men in Victoria’s downtown core. “And every time you get an announcement [of restrictions], it sort of sets it all back again.”

Olsen will lose two major money-makers this year: his annual Boxing Day sale, his biggest single event of the year, and the large trade he does decking men out for Christmas parties. He said mothers buying sweaters and socks for their sons will not replace guys getting themselves a new jacket to impress at the office Christmas bash.

Victoria downtown retailers, who rely heavily on office workers and tourists for much of the year, have been particularly hard hit this year.

Teri Hustins, owner of Kaboodles toy store and Oscar & Libby’s gift shop, said on top of tourist traffic disappearing and the fact that there are few office workers in the core, businesses have been facing supply-chain issues.

Kaboodles, for example, had its entire Christmas Lego order cancelled.

“When 10 feet of an 1,100-square-foot toy store is devoted to Lego, you wonder what are you going to put on those shelves,” she said.

However, Hustins said, the year has not been as bad as she thought it might be, which has given her some hope for the Christmas season, when the store does about a quarter of its total business.

She said they managed to pivot and go online early on, which has paid off a bit.

“And I think the messaging to locals of the importance of our small business community has really resonated with Victorians,” she said. “We are getting lots of email with people saying they want to keep their money local.”

Jeff Bray, chief executive of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, says that’s what keeps him “cautiously optimistic” about the rest of this year.

Bray said the combination of businesses quickly finding their way to online platforms and locals embracing the idea of shopping local could translate into a decent Christmas season for some stores.

“The other thing is people are coming to realize that the downtown is an outdoor mall,” he said, noting shoppers can walk around without masks until they enter a store, café or restaurant.

Bray said while the lack of tourists and workers downtown is clearly having an impact, he has heard some stores have been busy.

Retailers such as hardware stores, lumber yards and fixture warehouses are doing well as people take on renovations as they spend more time at home, while bike stores have been having trouble keeping up with demand.

“There is some optimism out there,” Bray said.

Ecologyst, for example, managed to keep the lights on by devoting its efforts to online business. The result was 135 per cent growth in e-commerce revenue to about $1 million in online sales this year.

Samantha Holmes, owner of Bolen Books at Hillside Shopping Centre, said they have also caught a whiff of optimism.

“We are doing all right, actually,” she said, noting the store regularly has lines at its front door and has grown its online traffic.

“And since the mask mandate came through, things have been a lot better stress-wise,” she said. With everyone now having to wear a mask indoors, there is less conflict and turmoil, and staff and customers both feel good about the 50-person limit in the space.

She said people have become focused buyers and tend to be there to buy rather than browse.

Olsen said Victoria retailers have it pretty good compared to other parts of the country or the U.S.

“I sit here and thank God I’m not in Winnipeg, Peel Region or Toronto,” he said. “You live in fear of being told three weeks before Christmas that you have to close. I can only imagine what that’s like.”

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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