Is Ottawa heading for its biggest holiday shopping season ever? Retail expert says it's a good bet

Holiday shopping
Traffic is up dramatically at malls across the city this Christmas shopping season. Adobe stock image

Santa is back at Ottawa malls and so are hordes of highly motivated shoppers, signalling a green Christmas at the checkout counter for retailers in what one local analyst predicts will be a record year for holiday spending.

A year after COVID scuttled his appearance at local shopping centres, St. Nick’s return has been accompanied by a wave of consumers who are eager to make up for a 2020 holiday season that got stolen by the pandemic grinch.

Sales at major shopping centres surveyed by OBJ are up an average of 30 per cent over last year as pent-up demand and the fear of missing out on that perfect gift amid ongoing supply-chain woes are driving consumers to open their wallets wider than usual.

Retail analyst Barry Nabatian says after a blue Christmas for retailers a year ago, this holiday season is shaping up to be among the best ever for a sector that generates a huge chunk of its annual revenues in December.

“People have money and they are just really hungry to go shopping, to see friends to buy things and give themselves a treat,” says Nabatian, the director of market research at Shore-Tanner & Associates, adding that fears of rising inflation are fuelling a rush to big-box stores like Costco as budget-conscious consumers look to stock up on necessities.

The veteran retail expert says mall traffic has dipped a bit in the past week or two amid rising COVID case counts fuelled by the emerging omicron variant. 

"There’s a good chance that this could be the best shopping season in history."

Still, he says that barring a dramatic spike in cases and hospitalizations in the next week, 2021 could be a record-setting Christmas for local retailers.

“There’s a good chance that this could be the best shopping season in history,” Nabatian says. “People have lots of money, and they haven’t been able to spend it.”

Retail tenants are definitely in a jolly mood at St. Laurent Shopping Centre, where marketing manager Kristina Sparkes says foot traffic has spiked 20 per cent compared with last year and sales have jumped even more.

“People don’t seem to be as bargain-driven as maybe other years,” says Sparkes. “I’ve heard from a few retailers that if something’s in the store, (shoppers) are going to buy it.”

Like most local malls, St. Laurent requires visits with Santa to be booked online in advance to cut down on lineups and congestion in the shopping centre. Sparkes says kiddies are coming out in droves to sit down with St. Nick, while their parents and other shoppers tend to be doing more research and calling ahead to ensure items are in stock in order to eliminate wasted trips.

Shoppers 'really planning their visits'

“I definitely think there’s a feeling that when (visitors) come, they’re here to shop,” she says. “People are really planning their visits so that they can be in and out as fast as possible.”

The story is much the same downtown at the Rideau Centre, where manager Brian O’Hoski says 2021 is looking a lot more like Christmas than last year.

“It’s starting to feel like the good old days, dare I say,” he says.

While traffic at the region’s busiest mall – which typically draws 25 million people a year – is still not quite back to pre-pandemic levels, O’Hoski says “purpose-driven” shoppers with fistfuls of cash to spend and lists in hand are making up for a lack of tourists and office workers who normally constitute a large portion of visitors.

As a result, he says, most tenants are seeing double-digit percentage sales increases compared with 2020.

“It’s very encouraging,” O’Hoski says, citing pent-up demand and “impulse buying” from consumers worried about supply shortages as the main factors fuelling the steep rise in sales.

The return of Santa as well as new offerings such as an augmented reality tree-decorating experience have also helped trigger an uptick in traffic, he adds.

“We’re seeing people show up and enjoying the festivities,” O’Hoski explains.

Farther west at Bayshore Shopping Centre, general manager Denis Pelletier also says sales have climbed about 30 per cent year-over-year.

While visitors aren’t spending as much time in the mall as they did pre-COVID, they’re making the most of their excursions, he says.

“We’re not quite (at pre-pandemic sales levels), but it’s getting much, much closer,” Pelletier says.

Back at St. Laurent, Sparkes says the festive atmosphere that was largely absent in 2020 has returned, and she couldn’t be happier.

“It’s all about the buzz and the hum and the energy,” she adds. “Our retailers feed off the energy of customers. Everyone’s just so happy to have people back.”