11/25/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 01/24/2015 05:59 EST

High Stakes Holiday Shopping Season For Target And Sears

There will be no rest for retailers this holiday season; they’re locked in a high stakes battle for our bucks in a hyper-competitive marketplace where some chains are fighting for survival.

“Christmas is our most important season in the year, and certainly I think most retailers will tell you that November, December may make or break their year,” said Sears Canada spokesperson Vincent Power.

The shopping season could also make or break some troubled retailers.

Sears down but not out

Last week, Sears Canada once again reported disappointing earnings, losing $118.7 million in its fiscal third quarter. The struggling retailer has shut stores to cut costs, most notably its flagship location in Toronto’s Eaton Centre.

“We have stores that are coming up from the U.S., stores that are coming over from Europe. All of these people are trying to take a piece of the retail pie. What we have to do as a retailer is give people a reason to shop Sears,” Power said.

He bristles at the mention of rumours that Sears is going out of business and calls the notion, “ridiculous.” He said the department store has a “very healthy balance sheet” and plenty of ways to woo customers this Christmas.

Much of the wooing will be online. Customers can still peruse for gifts the traditional way by flipping through the classic Sears Christmas catalogue, the Wish Book. Or they can find it in cyberspace. The catalogue even has an iPad app.

“If they’re suddenly thinking I’ve got to buy something for my nephew, they can pull this out of their briefcase, open it up and order on the train on the way home,” said Power as he browsed the Wish Book on a tablet.

The company is also offering free shipping for gifts over $99. And shoppers can now check online for product inventory in stores.

"I think there's a way for all Canadians to connect with Sears and hopefully they'll find a way to do so in the next two months as we lead up to Christmas," Power said. 

Targeted Attack

Target Canada also needs a big piece of the retail pie this Christmas. The Canadian arm of the U.S. retail giant still hasn’t fully captured the hearts and wallets of customers and continues to bleed money.

“We need to see improved financial performance from every Target store in Canada over time,” warned the company’s CEO, Brian Cornell, during last week’s conference call to report quarterly earnings. He added that company managers will be watching how Canadian stores perform this Christmas season.

“The holiday season is very important to Target — it’s our busiest time of year,” said Canadian company spokesperson, KalynnCrump. This season’s offerings include special collections, Black Friday deals all this week, and a 40-page toy catalogue both in print and online.

But Target Canada still hasn’t set up an e-commerce site. That could hurt the retailer during a season when industry experts predict more Canadian shoppers will flock to online sites.

While online shopping may never fully replace the in-store experience, customers now want to have it all. Margie Valberg began her holiday gift buying by trekking to the Eaton Centre. But, she adds, “I enjoy shopping online for things I can’t find in stores nearby.”

Shopper Haroon Abdullah said he likes retailers that also have online sites because, “If you go to a store and they’re out of stock, you can always buy the product online and have them send it to you.”

Wal-Mart pops up

“The successful retail companies of the future need to understand the intersection of the physical and digital,” said Wal-Mart executive Shelley Broader who oversees Canada’s retail operations. Like Sears, she said Wal-Mart is working hard to marry its online and in-store operations.

For example, this Christmas, it has set up a new pop-up shop in downtown Toronto. Customers can check out popular toys on display and then order them from on-site kiosks. “It provides instant access for customers that normally wouldn't be able to get to a Wal-Mart conveniently,” Broader said.

“The adoption rate of Canada to shop online was slow in the beginning, but it’s ramping up rapidly for us.”

Target Canada admits it needs an online retail site, but Crump said, “First we have to get the basics right.”

A small team has been working on a digital strategy but, right now, the retailer's focus is on the holidays and getting customers to shop the old-fashioned way — in their stores.

No matter what the fate of retailers this Christmas, it’s sure to be a good one for consumers. With bountiful product offerings and deals and numerous ways to get your gifts, Canadian shoppers will reap the rewards from the retail battle.

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