COVID-19 taught retailers that online shopping is a key to their survival - InfoNews

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COVID-19 taught retailers that online shopping is a key to their survival

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June 11, 2020 - 2:20 PM

When COVID-19 restrictions were introduced in B.C. in mid-March, retail sales quickly dropped to 25 per cent of normal.

As people were told to stay home except for essentials like groceries and medications, much of the retail sector voluntarily shut down, at least for a time, as customers disappeared.

But many found ways to adjust, according to Greg Wilson, director of government relations for the B.C. chapter of the Retail Council of Canada, who spoke during a Kelowna Chamber of Commerce webinar today, June 11.

“My heroes, the folks who stayed open and have done well throughout were the local businesses who tended to already have a strong online presence and, even if they closed for the first two weeks or three weeks, they moved to a situation where people were ordering online and they were fulfilling that either through mail or delivery options or through curbside pickup,” he said. “My sense is that order and delivery piece will continue to define retail.

“Sadly, a lot of retail businesses weren’t already on-line but, happily a lot of them made strong efforts in the last couple of months to move on-line and transition their businesses. It’s obviously harder for those who weren’t on-line before, because they didn’t have a good email list, etc.”

Online sales in Canada did double at the start of COVID-19, Wilson said.

“But, online sales in Canada were already quite a bit behind the U.S. and a few other Asian jurisdictions so it’s not clear to us that trend wasn’t going to happen anyway,” he said.

He was surprised how many business reopened even before Phase 2 of the easing of COVID-19 restrictions started.

While he doesn’t have national statistics, from talking to his members, he estimates that sales are back to about 75 per cent of normal.

“That’s fine for a sector where they’ve had the 75 per cent all along,” Wilson said. “Frankly, that’s not fine when you've lost most of your sales for two months.”

He also noted that the 75 per cent is an average. Some product lines, such as luggage, still have no customers.

There is growing consumer confidence that their shopping experience will be safe.

One key change has been seen in the clothing sector where the initial concern was over how to deal with clothes that were tried on and not bought since there’s no clear understanding of how long the virus lives on various materials.

Stores have decided to increase hand washing and hand sanitizing as customers enter the stores.

“My understanding is this helps employees, and retailers themselves, feel comfortable that, if they see a customer sanitize their hands, when they touch things they know they’re not spreading germs."

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