Crowds of people, filling mall courtyards and halls, with bags in hands and Christmas music in the air — this has been the standard holiday scene for as long as any of us have known. But with no playbook or blueprint as a reference, what will the first COVID Christmas look like?
How, for instance, will retailers at Edmonton’s big malls, where people usually gather to socialize and shop during the holiday season, return to something approaching normal while keeping everybody safe? Is that even do-able?
We asked Edmonton’s four biggest malls – West Edmonton Mall, Southgate Mall, Londonderry Mall and Kingsway Mall – to talk with us about how they’ve navigated the pandemic, about what is happening now and what happens next. Only WEM opted to speak with us for this story.
“When we closed down in March, we still had our core team here working,” says WEM General Manager Danielle Woo. “Some of us were home, some of us were in our offices. We really started, pretty much as soon as we closed, working on the re-opening plan.
“It was just a matter of working very closely with Alberta Health Services, coming up with the protocols with them and then just making sure that everything we were planning was going to make sense for operations and customer and employee safety.”
WEM closed the World Waterpark and its Galaxyland attractions on March 15. It wasn’t until May 14 that AHS regulations allowed malls to re-open for in-store shopping. Since the initial closing, WEM has rolled out three programs to assist retailers.
Curbside pickup, allowing customers to order and pay online before picking up what they’d purchased, was a direct response to COVID-19, which closed down everything in the mall that was not deemed an essential service.
Exclusive services, where visitors enlist personal shoppers and can host private parties in the mall, and an online shopping showcase portal that enables retailers to better display their merchandise, were in the works before COVID but have since been rolled out.
“It’s one of those things that we had no guidelines whatsoever, but we thought of the challenge and we thought of our path to rise to the challenge because we have tenants depending on it, we have employees depending on it,” Woo says of the three initiatives. “It’s very important for us to make it a success for everybody.”
As for the Christmas experience inside WEM, Santa and all the lights and decorations aren’t going anywhere, even if AHS guidelines relating to mandatory masking and physical distancing remain, as will directional arrows to keep shoppers moving. There will, however, be some noteworthy changes.
BOOK YOUR TIME WITH SANTA
Visits with Santa will be by appointment. There won’t be the usual lineups at North Pole Place to see him. Likewise, while children can get photos with Santa, discussing who has been naughty or nice will be done at a safe distance. The trick is striking a balance to keep the magic of the holidays in tact.
“People are still going to need to get out and experience the season safely,” says Ken Christensen, WEM’s creative director. “We’ve been noticing that with the masks and protocols in place, people do feel safe to come out to the mall.
“The younger generation craves an in-person, holiday experience. I know there’s a lot of talk about online shopping and stuff, but what we see is that people still want to get out and our attractions are generally picking up. Showing people how safe it is and how to protect them-selves has really been beneficial in making people’s comfort level good.”
CAN’T DO THE MINDBINDER ONLINE
There was significant pent-up demand by consumers in the weeks following the May 14 reopening under AHS guidelines. That’s been welcome news for WEM’s 800 stores and attractions after some very lean months.
“Foot traffic is picking up, and sales are increasing,” Christensen says. “Of course, it hasn’t been easy, but there are success stories too, especially from retailers who were able to adapt.”
“I think it will be similar to what it was last year,” Woo says of crowds expected over the Christmas seasons. While the pandemic thinned crowds for Black Friday because of AHS limits on the number of people allowed in individual stores at one time, Woo says customer traffic has been “steadily increasing.”
The boom in online shopping started long before COVID-19 became a factor — one need only look at the growth of Amazon to know that. There’s no question online shopping is not only here to stay but will grow, moving forward into whatever the new normal is, likewise for the programs WEM has rolled out since March.
“We’re definitely not looking at them as short-term, Band-Aid solutions to COVID,” Mannat Kahlon Gill, marketing and promotions manager of WEM says. “Anything we’re doing currently is something that is going to be ongoing at WEM.”
While WEM will refine and expand programs put in place since everything changed, the big mall in the west end has no intention of abandoning what got it here in the first place. Simply put, there’s still something to be said for climbing aboard the Mindbender, catching a wave at the waterpark or geeking out in a themed-out hotel room.
“Online shopping for sure has its perks, but I think what sets WEM apart is something the online world can’t really give to the guest, and that’s the experience,” Kahlon says. “We’re first and foremost an entertainment and experience-based property.
“There’s something here for everybody… that sort of touchpoint is pretty impossible to replicate in the online world. We just try to sell that story and sell that experience to our guests.”
West Edmonton Mall isn’t alone in trying to find new ways to bring shoppers through the doors. The Edmonton City Centre is partnering up with The Mustard Seed as part of their new campaign. A minimum spending of $25 in any ECC store will enter you for a daily draw of $1,000, from November 18 to December 18. A bigger draw of all entries will be held on the last day of the event for a grand prize valued at $10,000.
Alberta’s move back to Step 1 did not include the closure of schools.
Meanwhile, Ontario shut its schools as COVID numbers increase.