B.C. small businesses fight to get noticed on Black Friday amid COVID-19 restrictions

Jake Giammarino likes to think of the business he owns with his wife, Tanya, as a support system for dog owners — a community-minded hub where people can drop in to chat, ask questions and buy supplies.

So, it feels strange to be running Black Friday promotions that push shoppers to the Discover Dogs online portal, which was beefed up after the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of drawing them to their Vancouver storefront.

“It’s a weird thing where we’re trying to keep both our staff and community safe while trying to ensure that we can keep the business operating,” said Giammarino.

It’s a balance many B.C. businesses are trying to strike heading into Black Friday and the busy Christmas shopping season as pandemic-related restrictions tighten.

According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, just one-third of small businesses are making normal revenue for this time of year, while big-box retailers are making more money.

“Maybe if they got through the first wave they were not anticipating that we would have these kinds of restrictions on movement and travel heading into shopping season,” said Amy Robinson, founder and director of LOCO B.C., a non-profit that supports independent business. “November to December is a critical time, particularly for retail stores who make a lot of their revenue during those two months, so they’re struggling.”

At the same time, shoppers are also focusing their efforts online more than ever, thanks to COVID-19-related restrictions. Statistics Canada reported that between February and May, retail sales fell 18 per cent while retail ecommerce sales nearly doubled and some retailers relied more on this outlet. Black Friday is expected to be no different.

James Blackwell, spokesman for Small Business B.C., said local businesses have been upscaling their online operations thanks to COVID-19, but they struggle to get noticed in shoppers’ online searches. That’s one reason why his group set up B.C. Marketplace. Small businesses also have tighter margins and can’t slash prices like major retailers.

“If you are shopping on Friday, shop local. Keep it within the local economy and buy from somewhere in your neighbourhood, support that local business owner, someone that you know has a relationship with the community,” Blackwell said.

Giammarino said they wouldn’t normally focus on Black Friday, but the business wanted to stay relevant to customers and show up in their social-media feeds when they were looking to buy.

Shopping centres, on the other hand, are still expecting to see crowds for Black Friday sales — properly spaced and taking COVID-19 precautions.

Charles Fleck, general manager for B.C. and Metropolis at Metrotown for Ivanhoe Cambridge, said many retailers extended their sales to disperse customers, and mall hours have been extended. Virtual lineups have been introduced and there will be crowd monitoring and outdoor lines when possible to allow for physical distancing. Holiday programs like gift-wrapping and Santa photos have been cancelled.

Similar measures — extended sale dates and longer hours of operations, recommendations to visit at quieter times, cleaning and sanitizing — will be in place at the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet, said marketing manager Ally Day.

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