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A muted Black Friday for Canadians amid inflation, online shopping and longer deals

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People line up at the Toronto Premium Outlets mall on Black Friday for shopping sales, in Milton, Ont., Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. Experts say they expect big blowout sales and blockbuster one-day deals this Black Friday will draw consumers to stores in numbers not seen since pre-pandemic days.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Canadians hunting for Black Friday deals did so without facing long lines or crowded shopping malls this year, as an extended period of sales and decades-high inflation weighs on consumers and prompts some to rein in spending. 

Retailers have stretched deals over several weeks and offered similar discounts online, taking some of the frenzy out of the holiday shopping event.

Several big box stores in the Greater Toronto Area, such as Best Buy and Walmart, lacked the usual early morning lineups that once epitomized Black Friday. 

The Eaton Centre in the heart of Toronto appeared busy around lunchtime, but closer to a typical Friday rather than swarming with the crowds and queues seen in previous years. Few stores appeared to have lines of waiting customers.

A busy stretch of the city's Queen Street West, which includes H&M, Zara, Aritzia and Aldo stores, similarly didn't show signs of additional shoppers.

"We're seeing a dilution of Black Friday as a physical shopping event where you go to the store early in the morning," retail analyst Bruce Winder said Friday. 

"It's finally sort of hit that tipping point where it's much less about the day and it's more about the shopping period."

The elongation of Black Friday sales has lessened the urgency for consumers to shop on one particular day, said Lisa Hutcheson, managing partner at consulting firm J.C. Williams Group. 

"The need to line up isn't as necessary," she said Friday. "Most of the retailers have been on sale a good portion of the week already."

Shopper Amanda Ram said she normally comes to the Eaton Centre to check out Black Friday deals, though COVID-19 put a pause on that. 

She said she normally tries to hit the mall before the after-work rush, but though it was busy she still noticed it wasn't as packed as she remembered from before the pandemic — fewer and shorter lines, for one.

Overall Black Friday sales are expected to be strong as inflation intensifies the hunt for deals, experts say.  

Yet the rising cost of living will also lead customers to "cherry pick" sales, Winder said. 

Ram said she's being more careful with her money as she shops for the holidays this year. With inflation driving up the price of her mortgage and everyday essentials, she feels less likely to get caught up in the allure of a great deal, and plans to do some online comparison at home before heading back to the mall.

She said she thinks inflation is definitely affecting how many people shop this weekend and heading into the holidays.

"It's got to be on people's minds."

Stores that offer blowout deals of up to 70 per cent off will be busy while retailers with more tepid discounts won't see the same traffic online or in stores, Winder said. 

"If you're a retailer and you're trying to move something at 25 or 30 per cent off — it ain't gonna sell," he said. 

Some retailers, especially those with high levels of inventory such as apparel, will likely offer bigger sales in stores than online.

"If the merchandise is already there and they're running short on space, they'll want to turn it into cash — especially if they don't have room to pack it up and hold it for another year," Winder said. 

Meanwhile, after years of pandemic health restrictions, shopping in brick-and-mortar stores is expected to make a comeback this holiday season, including on Black Friday. 

“We continue to see increased levels and excitement for in-person shopping across all our 18 shopping centres," Sal Iacono, executive vice-president of operations for Cadillac Fairview, said in an emailed statement. 

The company, which operates a number of malls across the country including the Eaton Centre in Toronto and the Pacific Centre in Vancouver, has seen retailers extend promotions over a longer period of time but still expects Black Friday to be a big shopping day, he said. 

"We anticipate Black Friday to be one of the busiest shopping days at all our retail centres and we are looking forward to continuing to see the prolonged momentum throughout the entire season," Iacono said. 

Still, while some Canadians are eager to return to in-person shopping, others now prefer to do their holiday gift-buying online.

Bradley Thompson of Oakville, Ont., said he plans to do all his Christmas shopping on Black Friday — but won't be stepping foot in a store. 

"I'm not a big in-store shopper. I'm a real millennial in the sense that I'll be doing all my shopping online," he said. 

"As a personal challenge, I try to get all of my Christmas shopping done during the Black Friday sales."

He usually checks the sales at the big players like Amazon, Walmart and Best Buy, but Thompson said he's increasingly also shopping at Etsy and smaller local businesses online. 

Overall, he said the Black Friday deals he's come across are good — but not great.

"The discounts don't seem to be quite as steep as they used to be but they run them a little bit longer," Thompson said. 

"Inflation is crazy right now though, so every little bit I can save helps."

— With files from Rosa Saba in Toronto. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2022.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press