Online holiday shopping is expected to see a big boost in this pandemic year. (Negative Space/Pexels)

Nothing has been normal in 2020 and that will be true of online shopping this year, too.

Canadians flocked online in the spring when lockdowns were in place, driving a surge of up to 40 per cent in digital shopping. As restrictions grow across Canada amid record spikes in COVID-19 cases, more consumers are expected to turn to their phones and computers to check off their Christmas lists this year.

“This is going to be a season like no other,” Graham Robins, CEO A&A Customs Brokers, told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday.

“It’s going to a season of tremendous online shopping, so we have to get ready for that.”

Now that many Canadians are still working from home and perhaps considering virtual gatherings with family and friends in December that would mean shipping presents rather than giving in person, the country’s busiest shopping season is expected to look very different.

Robins says large couriers are gearing up for a record-breaking season. He recommends that Canadians shop early – that is, now – and to consolidate their items into single deliveries as much as possible.

Robins also says consumers should consider shopping locally, too.

He urges small businesses to look beyond selling on their own websites to platforms like eBay, Shopify and Facebook Marketplace.

The closure of the U.S. border means that many Canadians who have parcels shipped to a post-office box on the other side of the border and drive over to pick them up have to make new plans this year.

Robins says an option when companies don’t ship to Canada is to have a local parcel delivery company handle getting it across the border.

The shipping and logistics infrastructure in Canada has seen about three years of growth in one year in 2020 but the build out is still in progress, he says. Sometimes it’s faster and cheaper to get packages from the U.S. or around the world than from across Canada.

That’s why Canadians experienced a huge backlog in the spring in shipping of online orders when the pandemic first hit. The Surrey, B.C.-based A&A Customs Brokers reported a 35 per cent spike in business from online shopping in April.

FedEx Express Canada announced Monday that it has opened a new small-package sorting facility in Toronto to gear up for the holiday season. The facility will have the capacity to sort up to 20,000 small e-commerce shipments every hour and will operate around the clock.

The company has grown its Canadian workforce by 25 per cent since the beginning of the summer, adding 2,500 jobs. That’s the single largest hiring increase in a quarter in the company’s 33 years in Canada. 

According to a survey by consultancy PwC Canada, 33 per cent of holiday shoppers said they will use curbside pick-up for online purchases this year, compared to 13 per cent in 2019.

The report also found that overall consumer spending for the holidays is projected to fall about 31 per cent, but that is driven by a 60 per cent drop in travel spending. Holiday gift-giving is expected to drop just 2.6 per cent, from $647 last year to $630 this year.

Canada Post began urging customers to shop early this year about three weeks ago.

The postal service said it is scaling up operations to handle an expected surge in parcel volumes by adding more than 4,000 seasonal employees, more than 1,000 vehicles and extra equipment. It said it is improving its tracking technology.

Canada Post will also deliver on weekends in many communities, add more pickup locations and extend hours at many post offices.

Purolator, the courier service owned by Canada Post, is also rolling out low-speed electric vehicles in busy downtown areas of Toronto and Montreal, along with electric-cargo bikes (e-bikes) in Montreal.

It is also testing automated self-serve parcel lockers at a Montreal subway station.

Purolator says it has seen home deliveries rise about 50 per cent since the beginning of the pandemic.

A Canada Post survey in June found that 48 per cent of Canadians said they planned to spend mostly or exclusively online this holiday season and 54 per cent said they would begin shopping in October or early November.