Online shopping ‘takes a bite,’ but Metro Vancouver malls were busy on Black Friday

Some shoppers reported better deals in-store than online Friday, as many retailers now have both a physical location and e-commerce options.

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Despite increases in online shopping, McArthurGlen designer outlet in Richmond was bustling Friday with hundreds of shoppers hoping to snag deals on clothing, jewelry and cosmetics.

Kaela Va’a was one of more than three dozen shoppers who stood in line outside of the Nike store, which advertised its in-store merchandise as 30 per cent off for Black Friday.

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It wasn’t the Vancouver resident’s first stop at the mall. She had already purchased sneakers at Adidas for $42 (plus taxes), a deal much better than the online price of $150.

“It’s like you get something discounted twice when you buy in-store. The in-store price is already lower to begin with, then there’s a discount added on Black Friday,” said Va’a.

Black Friday crowds, which were expected to ramp up after people got off work Friday, show how bricks-and-mortar stores can complement online offerings, said David Ian Gray, a retail adviser with DIG360. He expected stores to be busy through the weekend.

“It’s the idea of a retail system, with all parts optimized,” he said.

Gray said COVID lockdowns did not spell the end of physical stores. Traffic at malls picked up again post-pandemic, while online sales also rose.

Statistics Canada data shows that between 2017 and 2021, the percentage of e-commerce in relation to total sales rose from 2.7 per cent to 8.7 per cent.

Online sales in September totalled $3.8 billion across the country.

But retail analyst Bruce Winder said those online sales have “taken a bite” out of bricks-and-mortar sales, pointing to dwindling crowds at some big-box outlets.

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He said he expects online sales to continue to rise before settling at 30 to 50 per cent of total sales.

“It’s just so convenient. The younger generation would do everything online if they could.”

But both Winder and Gray believe e-commerce will never totally eclipse in-person sales.

A shopper holds bags on Black Friday at McArthurGlen outlet mall in Richmond.
Black Friday shoppers at McArthurGlen outlet mall in Richmond. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10103050A

Gray said some brands, including many that started as online-only retailers, are seeking retail space as a way to attract new customers and generate growth.

“Good stores are still superior to the web in terms of inspiring, creating impulse moments, educating with the help of knowledgable staff, curating to a shorter set of clear choices, (and) troubleshooting issues,” he said.

“Window shopping,” however, has moved online, with people price comparing and shopping around online before making a purchase.

Gray said many of Metro Vancouver’s big malls are doing well, while some of the smaller regional malls may be in decline. But he pointed to major revamps happening at malls such as Brentwood in Burnaby, where residential density has been added.

The U.S., where analysts have predicted a significant number of mall closures over the next few years, has always had far more retail space than Canada, he said. “Indeed, you might say they’re over-malled.”

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Caroline Loftus said what keeps her returning to shop in-person is the ability to see certain merchandise before purchasing it.

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell what you’re getting when you buy online,” said Loftus, who does half of her shopping online, and half in-store.

“For some things, such as my Christmas tree, I am happy ordering online. But other things like clothing, I want to see and try it on to be sure it’s worth it.”

The 38-year-old walked out of McArthurGlen on Friday afternoon with several shopping bags of clothing in hand. She waited in line at Tommy Hilfiger, and made purchases at Michael Kors.

“You can’t get prices like this back at home in Ireland,” said Loftus.

In a statement, McArthurGlen Designer Outlet said it has seen consistently strong numbers throughout 2023, surpassing last year by 15 per cent and pre-pandemic numbers by 11 per cent. Shoppers come from communities across Metro Vancouver, including Richmond, Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby. The mall continues to expand as well, with new stores including Plenty, Harry Rosen, Psycho Bunny, Diesel and La Senza.

Earlier this week, Vancouver International Airport advised people headed to the airport to take the Canada Line in anticipation of increased traffic due to Black Friday sales at the mall.

Passengers were told to check flight status with their airline and monitor traffic reports.

YVR said RCMP, traffic management personnel and signage would be in place to direct drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians.

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Increased traffic stalled drivers on roads leading to other Metro Vancouver malls as well, including Tsawwassen Mills and Langley’s Willowbrook Shopping Centre.

Black Friday is no longer limited to one day in stores. Sales at McArthurGlen are expected to last through the weekend, while Canadian Tire even introduced “Red Thursday” just before Black Friday, with discounted electronics and home goods on offer.

Unlike the U.S., where it’s a long weekend, crowds were expected to increase Friday as people got off work.

Gray said his research has shown about half of Canadians engage in Black Friday deals through the month of November, with a distinct spike over the Black Friday weekend.

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