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Strong start to holiday shopping as experiences remain in focus

Retailers work to draw in shoppers as spending on gifts and décor set to decline
Come one, come all! Metropolis at Metrotown is offering four versions of Santa Claus this year as it works to give shoppers a reason to linger at the mall this season.

While many Black Friday sales have continued through this week, the first official weekend of the holiday shopping season gave retailers an early indication of what the month ahead will bring.

Black Friday traffic at Metropolis at Metrotown, the biggest mall in Metro Vancouver, was up 10 per cent versus last year on Nov. 24, and anecdotal reports from retailers indicate spending was also strong.

“Our retailers, that we work with, we haven’t really heard that any of them have seen any sort of decline in their sales; if anything, sales seem to be ramping up,” said Madeleine Byblow, associate vice-president, retail with commercial brokerage JLL in Vancouver. “It’s kind of interesting, given what’s going on in the economy right now, that people are still wanting to expand their budgets.”

The national retail outlook from JLL suggests holiday shoppers plan to spend $958 per person this holiday season, up from $868 per person last year, with a decided shift in favour of experiences over gifts, food and decorations.

Spending on gifts is down 13.4 per cent while spending on food and decorations is down 17.6 per cent. However, JLL says that when holiday-related experiences such as dining out and movies are included, total spending will increase 10.4 per cent.

The lower spending on gifts and food – where inflation remains stubbornly high – marks a significant shift in how consumers value these things. Rather than simply consume, JLL’s report indicates that consumers want to get their money’s worth, either in the quality of purchases or memories.

“Last year was the first holiday season post-COVID where people could go back out and do the dinners with family, go on a trip, travel, and I think that’s really just increasing this year,” Byblow said. “A lot of people are valuing the experience, spending time with loved ones, making memories over the physical purchase of something.”

While the holidays are often an excuse for aspirational purchasing has momentum as a break from the everyday, younger consumers will spend less than their elders on gifts in favour of experiences.

“Shoppers aged 30-44 (mainly millennials) will budget a little less for gifts and spend more than average on holiday décor and food, as well as holiday experiences,” JLL reports.

It notes that 56 per cent of shoppers younger than 30 earn less than $50,000 a year, which will see the smallest holiday spend of any income category, at $633 per person – 38 per cent less than those earning $50,000 to $150,000 a year.

Metropolis at Metrotown marketing manager Amanda Chung said the popularity of Black Friday deals reflects the bifurcation in the market between those ready to spend and younger consumers with less discretionary income.

But this year’s Black Friday discounts were smaller, she noted.

While the deals can help bring spending forward and avoid retailers having to offer deeper discounts at the end of the season to move product, Chung says the volume of sales is now a more important metric than total value. Sales will happen, but merchants want to draw in the shoppers.

This has driven a focus on experiences to draw in consumers, who tend to spend more in person than online but have spent less time in malls since the pandemic.

“From a property level, we are doing what we can to attract customers here so then they’ll spend and buy goods from stores,” she said. “Studies show the longer someone stays in the property, the more they’ll spend – whether it’s buying something, eating something or drinking something.”

Metropolis at Metrotown is shaking up its traditional Santa Claus program this year, keeping things fresh with four versions of the jolly elf.

There will be four Santa options – a traditional Santa, a younger Kris Kringle and a global Santa.

“This year we went with Chinese Santa, and if it’s well-received with the public, we want to bring that concept back with different nationalities as well,” Chung said.

The fourth version, Tropical Santa, will hang around during the post-Christmas season through to the end of the year, giving shoppers a chance to hear what he saw on his Christmas Eve travels.

Print photos will give families a tangible memento that solidifies memories of the experience, building connections that help engage shoppers, regardless of how much they’re spending this year.

“Stores still win out over online shopping for customers who want to see and touch products before buying,” JLL’s report noted. “Almost one-third of shoppers cite this as the top benefit of shopping in-store. The sights, sounds and scents of the holidays are also a top draw for shoppers.”

That makes sense to Chung, who said it’s important to not only have events that draw in customers but grab the attention of regular visitors.

“A lot of our shoppers come here every day, or at least once a week, because the community around here does so much at the centre, so it’s important to keep it fresh,” she said. “How can I get them to slow down a little bit and pay attention to us?”