Toronto malls are preparing for a holiday season that is almost normal again – in some cases even better

Shoppers are starting to seep back. Santa Claus and his elves are on their way, dressed up and masked. The Christmas trees are already being decorated.

Holiday shopping in malls will not quite be back to business as usual this year, but it’s going to be pretty close, according to mall owners, retail experts and even the happy old Saint Nick himself.

“It will not be completely back to normal, but it is getting there,” said Lisa Hutcheson, managing partner of retail consulting firm JC Williams Group.

After 19 months of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians are ready to act personally again.

“People have said that one of the reasons they plan to shop in person is to get into the spirit of the season. There’s a bustle that brings people into the holiday spirit,” Hutcheson said.

This is good news for retailers in malls who have been facing closures since the pandemic began and who are hoping for solid sales in an important season, even in normal times, said Michelle Wasylyshen, spokeswoman for the Retail Council of Canada.

“The holiday season is absolutely crucial for retailers,” Wasylyshen said.

At Yorkdale Shopping Center, run by Oxford Properties, mall director Will Correia said stores are already reporting an increase in sales, and not just compared to 2020, when malls were largely limited to pickup at curbs and essential services such as pharmacies or opticians.

“They’re getting pretty close to 2019 holiday numbers, and in some cases, they’re doing even better,” Correia said.

As the holidays get closer, Correia suggests that customers come in outside of rush hour to have a smoother experience and to go shopping as soon as possible to ensure they do not miss out on certain items. He also says people need to maintain a realistic expectation of service levels.

“People need to be patient and they need to realize that there are a few things that traders are still facing,” Correia said.

Firstly, the staffing level is right now getting back to the point where retailers can handle lots of eager customers at once. Worldwide supply chain problems mean that some coveted gifts may not be available or that they will be sold out quickly. And COVID distance protocols are still in place, which means there may be setups in some stores.

As for Santa, he comes back, though with a few changes.

“Santa and his helpers are all double-vaccinated against COVID and they will wear masks to make sure everyone is safe,” Correia said.

It’s the same story in malls run by Cadillac Fairview, including the Toronto Eaton Center, where Santa Claus will also be masked and dressed up. The traditional holiday photo session will be adjusted; visitors will not be able to sit on Santa’s lap. Instead, they are asked to sit on a bench nearby with Santa in the background.

“We are so excited to have Santa Claus back on our property,” said Andrea Nickel, Director of Customer Experience at Cadillac Fairview.

The feeling is more than mutual for Santa. Or at least for the people who usually take on that role during the holidays.

According to Paul Hillier, a member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, last year was not particularly merry for most of his brothers.

“I was pretty lucky. I only lost about 20 percent of my usual income because I was able to turn things around and make a lot of online Santa visits. But a lot of Santas I know dropped 75 or 80 percent,” Hillier said. , based in Janetville, Ont.

“I ended up spending about $ 2,000 on equipment and sets. I turned my living room into a studio. Let’s just say Santa got to know the Amazon messenger pretty well,” Hillier said.

While many of the major Christmas festivals he specializes in are not working again this year, Hillier said he and his other Santas still get lots of calls from malls and other potential customers.

“Many of the big venues and festivals are still not going to work this year because it takes months and months to plan them. But the malls are definitely calling, ”Hillier said.

That sign of life in the malls is a big moral boost for Santa himself, Hillier added.

“When you put on the red satin and velvet suit and the big leather belt and hat and look at yourself in the mirror, it’s just an incredible feeling.”

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