Ottawa malls banking on motivated shoppers to drive holiday sales

Brian O'Hoski
Rideau Centre GM Brian O'Hoski, seen in this 2019 photo, says fewer people are visiting his mall than last year, but the shoppers who are coming are there to spend. File photo

While local shopping centres are scaling back their Yuletide attractions and signs suggest Canadians aren’t in much of a spending mood this holiday season, Ottawa mall managers are hoping an uptick in “purpose-driven” shopping trips can still prevent 2020 from being a blue Christmas for retailers.

Respondents to Deloitte Canada’s annual holiday spending survey said they expect to spend an average of $1,405 this year – 18 per cent less than in 2019.

Meanwhile, Bayshore, Place d’Orleans, Rideau Centre and St. Laurent have all announced that jolly old St. Nick – a ubiquitous holiday attraction that draws consumers with kids to their properties – won’t be making an appearance this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, several mall managers are seeing signs of hope amid the gloom. They say many consumers are shifting their behaviour this year and arriving with the goal of checking purchases off their lists, rather than casually window shopping.

That surge in motivated buyers is why Rideau Centre general manager Brian O’Hoski remains guardedly optimistic that 2020 will not deliver a lump of coal to his sector. 

While his mall – which attracts more than 25 million visitors in a typical year – has experienced a steep downturn in overall foot traffic since the pandemic hit, he says retailers have seen a “large uptick” in the conversion rate of visits to their stores.

'More purposeful trips'

In other words, consumers who do venture into the downtown shopping centre lately are much more likely to actually buy something than they were in the past. 

“It’s more purposeful shopping trips as opposed to all the office workers and government workers coming downtown,” O’Hoski says.

Over at Bayshore Shopping Centre, the number of daily visitors is also down compared with a year ago. But like O’Hoski, Bayshore general manager Denis Pelletier says he’s hearing from many of his tenants that the “closing ratio” of visits that get converted into sales has shot up dramatically.

“We’re not as concerned about the volume of traffic,” he says. “A lot of people are coming less often, but when they do, they're purchasing.”

Retail analyst Barry Nabatian also says he believes Christmas 2020 won’t be all humbug for a sector that makes much of its money in the month leading up to Dec. 25.

For one thing, he says consumers are starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel in the fight against COVID-19 after two major pharmaceutical companies recently reported their vaccines have shown promising results. That’s good news for malls and other retailers, he says.

Feds a steadying presence

“That has suddenly changed everything,” says Nabatian, the director of market research at Shore-Tanner & Associates. “As soon as the vaccines are distributed, we are talking about a huge, huge economic upturn.”

Ottawa’s economy also hasn’t been hit as hard as many others in Canada due to the steadying presence of the federal government and the tech sector, he adds, meaning many consumers in the capital have cash in their pockets and have been eagerly awaiting a chance to spend it. 

As long as the capital’s COVID-19 case numbers continue their recent downward trend, Nabatian thinks this holiday season could be a bonanza for retailers. But if infections start to spike again in the next few weeks, he says it could be a long December. 

“It really all depends on how well we can flatten the curve,” Nabatian says. “The money is here, and the pent-up demand is here. If the curve is flattened, it’s going to be one of the best Christmases (for retailers).”

Back at the Rideau Centre, O’Hoski says he’s trying his best to remain upbeat.

“I think everybody's expectations are tempered,” he says. “I think the retailers are braced for that and they’re going to do their best to … provide a safe experience for everybody.”