The retail sector has gone through some challenging times in recent years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the industry moves forward from that volatile period of history, there’s high anticipation of what this holiday season will bring for retailers across the country.
Today’s challenges include skyrocketing inflation and the higher cost of living for the average Canadian. What will that do to consumer confidence and spending as we embark on the holiday shopping season with Black Friday sales and promotions this week followed by Cyber Monday.
Retail Insider asked several retail experts their thoughts as retailers prepare for this busy time of year.
1. What do you expect this year for Black Friday and Cyber Monday? Will shoppers be spending more or will they be cognizant of the inflationary pressures on them this year?
George Minakakis, author of The New Bricks & Mortar, Future Proofing Retail, who also leads advisory firm Inception Retail Group:
“I believe the mood this holiday season has consumers more on edge with inflation. A $100,000 income does not have the buying power it used to pre-pandemic. What does that say for all other consumers? Everyone is looking for deals. If they spend more than last year it will be inflation-driven. That doesn’t mean they bought more! Nor that they are happy about it. That comes with a psychological impact.
“Those of us who have led retail chains are more interested in transaction and conversion growth, that matters a lot right now. Consumers will be looking to get as much as they can for their own holiday targeted spending. When the Bank of Canada and Canadian government tell the public to be prepared for a tough winter, they have been listening and this has set the stage for spending. I believe that higher income consumers are migrating as well from normal shopping patterns and destinations to more value. Those who are not high income earners are migrating deeper into the discount world. We shouldn’t be surprised if we hear that resell retailers have had increased volumes this season.”
Doug Stephens, author of Resurrecting Retail: The Future of Business in a Post-Pandemic World and Founder and President of Retail Prophet:
“From what I’m seeing there’s a sharp decline in excitement or interest around both these shopping dates. Consumers today simply don’t operate with any meaningful fear of missing out, given the protracted nature of what used to be Black Friday. And with Google reporting that searches for the term “recession” in the U.S. are up 355 per cent in 2022, I think it’s safe to assume the potential downturn is weighing on the consumer psyche.”
Gary Newbury, an award-winning Strategic Advisor and Delivery Executive focused on the rapid transformation of disrupted supply chain performance across the end to end retail supply chain and last mile, founder of RetailAID Inc. in Canada, a speaker, podcaster and thought leader on retail supply chain performance:
“I always find it interesting to see the big firms sharing their thoughts and watch them, as the events come closer into view, revise these in light of operating conditions. My thoughts are in two areas; overall spending will be somewhat lower (consumers are still adjusting their spending patterns), however individual gifts may rise over previous years as the “Great Inventory Glut” will provide enthusiastic shoppers with a range of gifts at much lower prices than would have been expected earlier this year.
“I also think the overall pattern of spending across socio-economic groupings will continue to build on last year. High-end spending will increase overall, as it has done throughout the pandemic. The middle and working classes will be reining in their expectations. When they do shop, the discount chains and off-price retailers will benefit most as long as they continue to make shopping on their apps/websites and in their stores convenient to shop, easy to navigate and adorned with many attractive promotions to prise highly valued dollars from a hard-pressed consumer.
Bruce Winder, author of RETAIL Before, During & After COVID-19 and president of Bruce Winder Retail:
“I think Black Friday and Cyber Monday will be OK (up single digit in $) this year despite the softness of the economic outlook, inflation, interest rates and geopolitical risks as frugal customers buy more on promotion versus regular price. Customers will use the event to do much of their holiday shopping to stretch their money. Retailers must offer outstanding value though or customers will balk at lukewarm offers based on higher regular retail prices. Retailers that try to prioritize margin rate will be punished.”
Michael Kehoe, Broker of Record, Fairfield Commercial Real Estate and a spokesperson for Consumer Real Estate Canada:
“The Black Friday 2022 experience for consumers and retailers will vary in the various regions across Canada. Overall, I am expecting a robust Black Friday sales period but retailer expectations are cautious depending on the category.
“2022 Black Friday kicks off the holiday shopping season driving the post-pandemic retail recovery. The momentum will flow into Cyber Monday, the pre-Christmas shopping period and into Boxing Week. Sales and footfall at retail venues are expected to increase and consumer confidence is more or less on the positive side despite the effects of inflation and the awareness via the media of the potential for a mild recession in the near future.”
2. Have you noticed that Black Friday really has come earlier this year? Sales and promotions earlier than before. Why?
“I’ve noticed that holiday commercials, merchandising, displays and offers are out a lot earlier and aggressively. Everyone from Walmart to Canadian Tire are actively marketing for this season’s spending. There is no question that the uncertainty about consumers willingness to spend is a challenge. As a retailer you want to get out of the gate faster in stores and online. In fact, if you’re not there you could be at a disadvantage. I am pretty sure we will see increased advertising spending this season. It’s the only way to get a higher share.”
“Black Friday creep has been an ongoing trend in the US market for at least a decade and now we’re seeing the same in the Canadian market. In large part, it’s simply retailers mortgaging their futures with protracted discounts and promotions, so each year there’s a need to draw it out further to make the numbers. This year the stakes are even higher given the potential for retailers to be stuck with excess inventory if consumer demand falls short or if COVID outbreaks force holiday closures or occupancy caps.”
“The sooner retailers can move on from Halloween, and get into BF/CM promotions, the greater the opportunity to shift some of the excess stockholdings they have. They will not want to lose market share through a vital first strike on their consumers by their competitors.
“The extending period of BF/CM promotional period has been an increasing tendency over the last decade as Canadian retailing has slowly adopted and now fully embrace this sales event. Unfortunately, consumers tire of such long periods of single theme promotions and will be waiting for BF/CM extended weekend, or later, to pick up the bargains they are looking for at their desired price points.”
“Outside of Amazon’s October event, I thought I would have seen more promotional activity earlier. I can’t say I’ve seen a meaningful change in how early the sale is this year versus previous. Perhaps retailers are waiting to spend scarce marketing dollars closer to the actual Black Friday/Cyber Monday dates as the competition for thrifty consumers becomes intense.”
“The concept of Black Friday being a marketing event for retailers of all stripes has become an accepted driver of sales and every advantage is utilized by retail brands that seem to creep a little earlier on the calendar every year.”
3. Do you expect to see supply chain issues this year for retailers and what impact will this have on consumers?
“Much of the supply chain issues are more tempered. If anything large retailers have said they are seeing shipments arrive much sooner than anticipated. We already know that there are lot of containers sitting empty, indicative of changing patterns. I believe the biggest issue going forward in managing supply chains is not buying too much. Retailers with supply chain concerns may be facing financial issues, unable to fund their inventory needs. Overall, I expect the discussion in senior management meetings with retailers to pull out all excess inventory no matter how old, mark it down and move it.”
“Much of it depends on the degree to which global vaccination levels might quell any resurgence of the virus. If we have another winter of sporadic lockdowns, factory closures and dock worker shortages, then we could go back to square one with respect to supply chain breakage. It’s unlikely that we’ll have a situation as bad as last year but it’s not impossible.”
“With the demand patterns considerably curtailed from 2021 (through inflation and interest rate rises), and the inventory glut caused by overcompensating for potential shortages during 2021, we may see many stores with full shelves amidst the BF/CM promotion period and running into the final leg of the holiday promotions (and Boxing Day). Besides, vacancy rates for warehouse space is very low, especially in key markets like Toronto and Vancouver, so there’s a real pressure to get the inventory turning during Q4.
“However, my predictions for 2023 show a very choppy ride ahead for “Just in Time” retail supply chains, with potential disruption continuing in vital raw materials and energy, labour shortages across logistical activities and a very concerned consumer battered by accelerating inflation, accommodation costs, energy and increasingly dour job prospects.
“There will likely be realignment within supply chains. The last two to three years have not provided sufficient stability for advanced inventory management systems, perhaps using AI/ML, to make sense of disruption-impacted demand patterns, and furthermore, without more local sourcing of key “fashion” products (i.e. those fast moving, seasonal items that command higher margins), demand management processes will still lead retailers into malignment between consumer interests and the efficient servicing of their demand.
“We may have thought the worse, surely, is behind us. I would argue that it remains firmly in front of us, driven by the lack of real agility and resiliency across Canadian retailing, and the need to recognize that change is coming. Many retailers will proactively embrace this opportunity. Many will fight, tooth and nail against this. The concerns many CEOs have is “what can I do with my supply chain to help my business get in front of consumer demand and set trends?”. The response is not necessarily to keep fire-fighting and incrementalizing their current process and tech adoption on operating models that have barely survived the pandemic.”
“I think there remain some supply chain issues this year but not as many as last year. In fact, some retailers have excess inventory that they are looking to sell off as spring and summer inflation softened sales and retailers made big bets a year ago on fall goods before inflation was a meaningful factor. Therefore, we should see some aggressive save stories (discounts) on select merchandise that retailers have too much of.”
“Retailers in my network have, for the most part sorted out their supply chain issues with the exception of rising shipping costs and I believe that the problems of the recent past will be less impactful this year.”
4. Is this period of time make or break for many retailers? Who are most vulnerable?
“This has always been a make or break period for most retailers. I would start by saying retailers need to worry about a collision course between consumer affordability and demand. Their strategies need to address this issue going forward. This is the biggest vulnerability every retailer faces now and into 2023 and perhaps beyond that. Excluding luxury, retailers that don’t offer deep enough value driven offers, will be the most vulnerable with traffic and conversion. Not to forget that e-commerce will take another bite out of in store shopping. At the end of the day retailers that carry a lot of unsellable inventory tied to debt and loan covenants, are very vulnerable.”
“Conventional wisdom used to suggest that the 4th quarter – dubbed The Golden Quarter – was a matter of life and death for most retailers. Online shopping and year-round availability of most items (including holiday items) has evened out demand across the year a little but for most it’s still a crucial time.
“The most vulnerable retailers are – and always will be those who offer commodity products without any level of added value – be it through service, expertise, convenience or some other aspect. Retailers like this may be able to cling to life during up-cycles but they’re usually the first to get eaten alive in recessions.”
“Around August last year I suggested Q4/2021 would be the make-or-break period for the Canadian retailing industry. That was before consumers continued to spend at high rates ahead of the holidays which glossed over the cracks in how we, as an industry, continue to do retailing. I don’t think Q4/2022 will throw up too many fallouts, however if online services remain “free”, especially returns, then we might be looking to see turmoil during the first half year 2023 as the inevitable realignment starts to take effect.
“Besides Target, Sears and a few other withdrawals over the last five years or so, we have yet to see the real fall out that higher operating costs (including interest rates, labour and transportation) surface. However, it is clear that discretionary categories will be under substantial pressure to focus on their proposition, their pricing and operating models and ensure their processes and technologies delight the consumer, or they will be passed over in preference for those that are getting this right as we enter 2023.”
“This is a massive time for retailers that sell items that are bought as gifts. Sadly yes, several retailers will not survive past February 2023. This will be the first holiday since the pandemic that government supports will not exist. The world has changed since 2019 and some retailers will call it quits as the combination of debt incurred during the pandemic and the flight to value from customers will be too much for them. The most vulnerable are small retailers and brands that are not well capitalized.”
“Fourth quarter retail sales success is essential for retailers but the need for strong sales this fall is amplified by many factors. Rising retail rents, increasing levels of taxation and other costs make the situation murky and unpredictable at best.
“Consumers will be cautious, price sensitive and strategic with their shopping this year. Fashion, toys, jewelry and experiential gifts like indoor skydiving or cultural event tickets are expected to be popular as well as small indulgences like artisan gifts from local Christmas markets.”