The retail sector in Canada continues to face challenges as it embarks on a new year.
Retail Insider asked three well-known experts in the industry to discuss what 2023 was like for retail in Canada and what we can expect in 2024.
Here are the thoughts of George Minakakis, author of The book, The New Bricks & Mortar, Future Proofing Retail, who also leads advisory firm Inception Retail Group; Gary Newbury, Strategic Advisor and Delivery Executive, RetailAID.ca; and Bruce Winder, author of RETAIL Before, During & After COVID-19 and President, Bruce Winder Retail.
1. How would you describe what happened in the retail industry in 2023?
Minakakis: “Something had to give in 2023; it has been a journey of returning to somewhat normal competitive retailing. Yes, inflation and higher interest rates have had their impact, and a gradual consumer pullback has played out as I forecasted in mid-2021 when I referred to 2023 and 2024 as the rebalancing period. 2021 and 2022 saw phenomenal growth in sales and transactions driven by inflation, pent-up demand, and considerable savings accounts. 2023 has been the polar opposite; most retailers may have experienced negative to flat transaction growth. And, of course, as no surprise, we saw a shift with consumers conducting more bargain hunting probably by the beginning of June.
“Between 2021 and 2023, inflation has increased by 15 per cent, which was not economically sustainable for consumers. Hence, there is a shift to being more cautious and rebalancing their household spending. We should not be surprised if the last quarter of 2023 shows us an increase in shopping with debt, specifically with buy now pay later. I can’t ignore the layoffs in 2023 being indicative of doubt about the immediate future, so companies have been making changes from marketing to human resources.”
Newbury: “When I think about 2023 I cannot look at this year in isolation without looking at trends which explained much of what has happened, emerging during 2022. As 2022 opened it became clear supply chain challenges from the previous two years and significant government borrowings had led directly to inflationary pressures. The Bank of Canada, slow to realize this, needed to put the brakes on this situation. Tiff Macklem started ratcheting up interest rates late Spring, catching out many folk renewing their fixed interest rate mortgage arrangements. The Ukraine war and its effects on energy prices, and disruption to trading patterns certainly impacted on consumer wallets. The public became very aware of how countries are interconnected globally through complex supply networks designed to chase the lowest price, often without provision for risks, as we found out. And remember, for parts of Canada, restrictions, vaccinations, masks etc were still being mandated. There was also a transition back from temporary saving to resuming spending on debt towards the end of 2022 (e.g. BNPL programs), resulting in the raising of debt-to-income ratio. During this time, some employers were mandating return to office arrangements (boosting short term sales of apparel), which continued to gather pace during 2023.
“Given this background, many retailers seemed to rush back to processes and thinking they knew prior to the pandemic, thinking the worst was over. The tome of “the new normal”. The only certainty we can rely on is increasing uncertainty (and disruption) and this means long range planning has to be approached thoughtfully and with the support of Boards and key stakeholders. However, this is tough to negotiate, so it seems the game has resumed and it’s back to “quarter to quarter” reporting cycles, with few lessons learned.
“There were clear winners (and losers) during the pandemic, consumers seem to adapt quickly to changing conditions, and for many, the rails started to creak as reality set in with rumours spreading of cutbacks and consumers experiencing, first hand, seriously rising prices in core elements of shelter, energy and food, leading to an anxious consumer mindset.
“2023 had many different signals, from headline figures of 1000s of open retail positions forcing restricted opening hours at some retailers, repayment of “pandemic relief loans”, excess stockholdings coupled with high levels of real estate occupancy/rates and, from the consumer side, the advent of ChatGPT and the promise this, in the hands of the consumer, was heralding a substantial change in the consumer – retailer dynamic.
“The economic threat of recession plagued 2023, however, more and more people were being caught in the accelerating interest rate drive, often finding their shelter costs had doubled, if not tripled, energy costs up 50 per cent + and food around 20 per cent, with wages remaining pretty static. So basically, consumers started to defer their spending and were on the hunt for better value, hence dollar stores, Walmart, Costco saw increasing sales, and mid-priced retailers were forced to run more frequent promotions, however, interestingly, seeing Canadian Tire, a good bellwether of consumer confidence, laid off staff just as peak trading started in Q4. This was quite telling of how they saw the short term. Another notable challenge was Mastermind Toys heading into trouble during their busy season. Plus many mid sized retailers (e.g. Indigo, Roots) reporting losses. Visibly, just travel around some of the smaller towns and cities and see the number of empty stores. “Space for rent”. The Canadian retailing industry is not particularly well set up for success as we look forward to 2024.
“2023 has really been a mixed bag and for some retailers, with strong brand advocacy, a clear market proposition and remarkable experiences, continue to run ahead of the pack (e.g Lululemon), with many other chains showing signs of leadership teams not innovating, not differentiating, not appealing to the new mindset of their consumers, not deploying technology to enhance their brand experience, and basically being caught with holding too much inventory investment and not being prepared to erode margins to convert this excess into cash for investment in their branding, technology or their in store design. It remains quite a surprise that retailers continue to put their gray tail items on their website, rather than consolidate their assortment into a focused proposition and mirror stores and online with a consistent and comprehendible “product”.
“I personally was watching Putman Investments moves during 2023, however, it looks like their enthusiasm for taking on a good proportion of the former Bed Bath and Beyond real estate and rebranding as rooms + spaces has not necessarily set the consumer alight, but it is early days. More recently the moves of Unity are extremely encouraging with taking on Kit + Ace and progressively revitalizing that brand, and now adding Mastermind Toys into the portfolio. So there remains encouraging, let’s call them sub trends, however, overall, the market, if one strips out inflation, looks pretty flat as a pancake.”
Winder: “2023 proved to be a year of reckoning for retail as the spending hangover from the pandemic finally took hold during the second half of the year.
“2021 & 2022 were positive years based on government subsidies and heightened household savings, leading to revenge spending at retail. 2023 is when spending finally slowed as the full impact of higher interest rates, sticky inflation in some categories like food and housing, recession worries, geopolitical issues and increased household debt were felt.
“As supply chain issues faded, consumers transitioned from chasing inventory and buying at full price to scouring the internet for super sales and finding creative ways to save money such as making holiday gifts, thrifting for some and even cutting back on the number of people to buy for during the holidays.
“E-commerce enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. After a surge during the pandemic, online shopping took a back seat to brick and mortar shopping from a growth and interest perspective in 2022. With customer’s flight to value in 2023, e-commerce gained back popularity as a tool to find the best deals. Amazon released their 2023 impact report on December 20th (https://www.aboutamazon.ca/news/company-news/5-highlights-from-the-amazon-canada-impact-report) and with over 20 fulfillment centres and 60 shipping facilities in total, 4,500 Canadian cities are now able to buy 20 million items under Prime and receive them in one to two days in many cases. Online shopping has never been easier, more convenient and more comprehensive in Canada.
“We also witnessed some retailers bowing out in 2023. From Nordstrom to Bed, Bath & Beyond to Bad Boy and Mastermind Toys, we lost some big names. At the same time some of them were reincarnated as rooms + spaces or bought as a smaller version of themselves (Mastermind bought by Unity). In retail when the going gets tough, the weak get going. There are also many new-to-Canada retailers who either announced plans to open here or opened. A retail circle of life sort of thing.
“Generative AI took centre stage in retail (and the world) as the next panacea through ChatGPT and similar solutions that offer advanced search features and customer service capabilities. But this is just the tip of the iceberg for how AI can enable retail.”
2. What are your thoughts about the industry in 2024 and how it will fare?
Minakakis: “We will remain in this rebalancing period throughout 2024. That will mean more cautious spending as consumers will face larger mortgage payments. In other words, the damage of inflation has yet to be felt by everyone or every retailer. There are several shifts that I see happening in 2024, and they will be investments to be ready for the following six years. Personalization will be the low-hanging fruit for retailers focused on retaining their customers. More will invest in an omnichannel evolution as there is a need to collect meaningful data to stay connected with customers and attract new ones. With larger retailers looking at Artificial Intelligence as business enhancement and even as a technological predictive partner, there will be changes to how we compete. We will see hyper-competitive behaviours, which means real-time actions to grow sales and market share. You will need a higher level of market intelligence to deliver that. And finally, this will call for corporate reinventions in their operating structures. 2024 will be the beginning of organizations embracing AI Factory structures. Retailers should also be mindful of sustainability and environmental and climate change risks. 2024 will be the preparatory year for 2025-2030, a strong growth cycle. This means the right people, skills, and strategies must be in place.”
Newbury: “2024 will be tough, very tough. Of course, the winners from the last few years will likely continue to drive distance between themselves and their competition. What of the fabled “middle’? Those retailers using a high/low pricing model, not clearly differentiated and sitting in a discretionary spend category (like apparel, electronics or other general merchandise categories)? They’ll have their work cut out. We will likely see a few notable withdrawals from the market (during 2023 we saw Nordstrom finally cut their losses and Lowe’s pull out of Canada via a PE buyout) and many store closures as part of “right sizing” fleets, availability shortfalls (through ongoing supply chain disruptions, as well as suppliers saying enough is enough, pay up now!) and assortment reduction as retailers focus on cash preservation.
“This is the playbook from the Great Recession. Back then it was driven by calamity in financial markets, which lasted around 18-24 months. We’ve already been subject to monumental disruption for 48 months, and we are not through it yet. 2024 starts with the Red Sea disruption (and Panama Canal’s low water mark) and the escalation of container prices, once again. What changes have we made in the supply chain? I would propose, not as many as the narratives around resiliency and sustainability will have us believe. If we add in US, UK and other EU general elections, the geopolitical situation, plus the War in the Middle East can not be ignored. We may even have to contend with a snap election here, troublesome for longer term planning and investment.
“Key to survival will be leadership/brand self reflection and a clear definition of “what problem are we really solving for our target segment?” and “Is the target segment big enough to warrant investment” and “can we develop competitive strategies to be a market leader/trend setter?”
“Taking bold decisions of how a proposition can be presented more clearly to the market to drive more value both to the consumer and to the bottom line is vital during 2024. Gaining a perspective on this will be key in moving from barely surviving, to thriving, and laying the bedrock for 2025 when our key trading partners will have their governments in place for the next four to five years and strategic plans can be developed.
“I wish all our retailers the best of luck. 2024 will not be for the faint hearted as it will require a new management vision for each business, and often needing different leadership skills, styles and org design, together with a clear focus on its purpose and roadmap to success, without distraction.”
Winder: “The first half of 2024 will mirror that of the back half of 2023. Tighter spending, more store closings. We will probably see a number of small and medium sized retailers close down in January or February due to a soft holiday in 2023. Some big names may leave Canada or sell to Canadian investment companies.
“The second half of 2024 could see some improvement as the Bank of Canada may start to carefully and slowly lower interest rates. It will take time though for the economy and consumer spending to pick up again. Don’t count on seeing cheap money again like we did previously. That was an anomaly. Hopefully fall 2024 will be better than fall 2023 as Canadians gain more confidence.”