Did you know?

Canadians continue to embrace online shopping while ongoing measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 have forced many brick-and-mortar retailers to shut their doors.

Retail sales in Canada saw a decline of nearly 18% from February, while online shopping nearly doubled with a 99.9% increase. And while economists are still computing the impact of COVID-19 on the retail industry, many brick-and-mortar stores continue to be hardest hit by the pandemic.

Yet it’s not all doom and gloom, says Diane Brisebois, President & CEO of the Retail Council of Canada. And it’s not a case of online shopping swallowing brick-and-mortar retail post-pandemic either, she adds.

We’ve seen that, whenever restrictions are lifted, brick-and-mortar sales tend to go up and online sales level off. And while some retailers have been struggling to survive through the pandemic, others have flourished.”

Essential vs non-essential

The impact has been different for essential and non-essential retailers,” says Brisebois.

Essential retailers, such as grocers, mass merchants and pharma, those selling home improvement items like home décor and furnishings, outdoor furniture, electronics, exercise equipment etc., have seen growth during the last 14 months regardless of lockdowns, restrictions and additional health and safety costs, as the trend of remote work continued, Brisebois explains.

As more people started working and isolating at home, they “nested” – eating, baking, exercising at home, renovating their homes and backyards – and shopping behaviours changed.”

On the flip side, non-essential businesses have beared the brunt of lockdowns and/or strict capacity restrictions. While in some regions many SME brick-and-mortar merchants closed shop permanently, in others, businesses were forced to operate at only 25% capacity or less to serve customers while still shouldering additional overhead costs. Those hit hardest have been in the fashion industry, apparel specifically, tourist-dependent retailers and those catering to special events, Brisebois says. “If 70% of the population works from home, and stay-at-home orders restrict group gathering, you can appreciate how it would negatively impact many apparel/footwear and special occasion retailers – weddings, birthday parties etc. – they have suffered the greatest decline in sales.”

Retailers with locations in downtown cores across Canada have also been impacted, she adds. “Think of those in the Path in Toronto, for example. Very few people commute and use the Path these days.”

A retail apocalypse or post-pandemic renaissance?

Even before the pandemic hit there was talk about a ‘retail apocalypse’, Brisebois says. “But survival is in the retailer’s DNA. While we maintain brick-and-mortar will always be strong due to the need for human interaction, excitement and experience, I think COVID-19 forced retailers to sit back and think about how and where they’re meeting and serving the needs of their customers.”

The good news: As we’re getting closer to full vaccination rollout, many retailers are gearing up for a post-pandemic boom, increasing store locations and strengthening their brick-and-mortar experiences.

Canadian consumers have never saved so much money and record spending is anticipated this summer and fall. Retailers are positioning their real estate assets in order to capitalise on the demand.”

Even better news: Most consumers have become more aware of the importance of supporting their community retailers – a trend Brisebois says will continue long after the pandemic ends.


Most retailers, regardless of size, have an omni-level customer who wants to shop on all channels: mobile, online, brick-and-mortar. These will all continue to grow symbiotically,” Brisebois says. And when the pandemic restrictions finally end, she adds, we’ll be seeing some exciting and innovative new ways to experience in-person shopping.

Brisebois offers the following advice to businesses who are looking to up their game when brick-and-mortar opens in full swing again:

  1. Invest in remodelling

Retrofit your store to accommodate new health and safety protocols. Customers will be conscious of physical space and safety. Rethink isle width, merchandising displays, doorcrasher experiences, change rooms, etc.”

  1. Think ‘experiential innovation’

Invest in digital and tech. Think of contactless ways of interacting with your customers in store, contactless payment, visual displays and experiences without physically touching/testing/trying products.”

  1. Think like a startup

How can you build the best possible experience for a customer in your store? What makes your brick-and-mortar shopping experience different than your online shopping experience? Be creative. Think disruption. Your store is now a theatre: entertain, inform, excite your customers. Make them want to come back in.

*Other sources: esri.com; statista.com; paymentsource.ca