Opinion: Retail sales ‘hit a wall’ in Burnaby as store closures continue

Chris Campbell

If you want to learn more about people’s behaviour as the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved – or disintegrated – then follow retail sales.

How people are spending their money in Burnaby offers a glimpse into people’s reaction to the pandemic.

Like sales at gas stations.

Even as prices plunged to under $1 a litre, sales cratered in the spring has people went into lockdown. That’s changed as gas sales are way up in Burnaby.

Robert Carter, industry adviser with StratonHunter Group, said the surge in gasoline sales could be explained in part by "staycations."

"As the economy opened up and people could move around, there were a lot of staycations," he said.

Carter said the uptick in vehicle sales is likely due to improved household savings and pent-up demand.

"People may have felt they had a little bit of extra income to buy that vehicle that they were putting off."

Meanwhile, sales at food and beverage stores dropped 2.1 per cent in July, potentially the result of stockpiling in previous months, Carter said.

"People probably had a higher inventory of products in their houses than they historically would have," he said. "I think that resulted in a bit of softening in the general household spending category."

That’s why you can now get toilet paper anytime you want in Burnaby, although I believe I have enough already in my home to last until the end of 2021 – depending on my bowels, of course.

Overall, retail sales in Burnaby and beyond "hit a wall" in July after big gains in May and June, a sign that the economic recovery could be slow and bumpy.

Statistics Canada said Friday overall retail sales in July rose 0.6 per cent to $52.9 billion, helped by higher sales at motor vehicle and parts dealers and gasoline stations, after posting gains of more than 20 per cent in both May and June.

I’ve noticed that traffic in Burnaby malls has really increased during recent visits. Metropolis at Metrotown isn’t where it was pre-pandemic, but it was quite busy on the recent Saturdays I was there. Same for Lougheed and Brentwood. Metrotown has seen the closures of a number of its retail outlets, including the Microsoft store.

closed

Brentwood is a different situation, of course, because it’s going to a transition with older tenants leaving as the new Amazing Brentwood gradually opens up.

For Lougheed, some tenants have also closed up shop or are getting ready to. Lougheeds Aldo location – a global brand – is currently in the midst of a going-out-of-business sale as the parent company tries to restructure.

Outside of the major malls, Burnaby has seen multiple store closures, including Addition Elle and Thyme Maternity.

Retail Council of Canada president and CEO Diane J. Brisebois said the latest figures show the retail recovery is slowing.

"The July numbers continue to reflect the many challenges facing retailers during this pandemic," she said in a statement.

"We can presume that the June numbers released by Statistics Canada last month included some pent-up demand for various products and so the July numbers really present a more accurate state of Canadian retail."

Mendes said the slowdown could be explained by a shift in spending towards the service sector.

"It's possible that households actually just tilted some of their spending away from goods and back towards services," he said, noting that consumers may have spent more on eating at a restaurant or going for a haircut.

A preliminary estimate for August suggested that retail sales increased by 1.1 per cent, by Statistics Canada also said Friday.

Going forward, Mendes said the "recuperation phase" of reopening after COVID shutdowns will likely be slower and rockier, as predicted by the Bank of Canada.

He said ongoing restrictions and household cautiousness will likely lead to slower growth in the coming months.

While BMO chief economist Douglas Porter agreed retail figures will continue to be more subdued in the coming months, he said the latest numbers also included many positives – most importantly the preliminary estimate for August.

"It's almost comforting to see an economic report that is somewhat back to ‘normal’ in today's moderate retail sales gain," he said in a note to clients.

"While the headline gain was a bit shy of expectations, the much bigger and more important picture is that retail and wholesale activity just carved out perfect V-shaped rebounds."

  • With files from the Canadian Press
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