Black Friday has long been the traditional start of the holiday shopping season in the US. As dawn breaks after Thanksgiving long lines of shoppers trying to score the best deals camp outside of stores and malls across the country. Not this year.
The pandemic has dramatically altered this year’s Black Friday. Covid-19 is most likely to spread in indoor, crowded spaces. Many state and local governments have enacted regulations that encourage social distancing, including limiting the number of customers in the store at once.
This does not mean holiday shopping is cancelled – far from it. Even as many Americans suffer the economic effects of the pandemic, people are still buying things, especially since they are spending less on traveling, , movies and concerts. Consumer spending rose throughout the summer and into early fall. A survey from the National Retail Foundation found that consumers’ budgets for holiday shopping are down just $50 compared with last year.
But for many US retailers, already suffering from Covid restrictions, Black Friday looks bleak and the usual Christmas bonanza far from certain. So far this year, major retailers including J Crew, Neiman Marcus and JC Penney have filed for bankruptcy.
Others, notably Amazon and Walmart, have thrived. But the holiday season will probably prove critical for a number of other household retail names and even more small businesses.
Many customers will be shopping online, continuing a Thanksgiving trend that has been seen over the years.
Black Friday’s most popular retailers already have their major sales under way online in an effort to encourage people to shop online instead of going to stores. Best Buy opted to sell new gaming consoles like the PS5 online only. Walmart and Target spread out its online Black Friday sales over the month of November. Home Depot is making its Black Friday prices available throughout the holiday season.
“The deals are available now – you don’t have to wait. You don’t have to concentrate your shopping over a single weekend,” said Katherine Cullen, senior director of retail and consumer insights at the National Retail Federation.
Besides reducing the potential for crowded stores, lengthening the period of Black Friday sales also lessens the pressure on the supply chain that handles online orders, Cullen said.
While the big box stores and prominent online retailers will probably fare well during this Black Friday, some retailers may struggle to reap the increased sales the holiday promises.
Small businesses especially have struggled to adapt to the surge of online shopping during the pandemic. Yelp, the online reviewing platform, has estimated that by September, 17,503 businesses in the country will have permanently closed, including many small businesses.
Department stores, once the most powerful retailers in the US, are also likely to see another tough holiday season after many years of decline as consumers seek the speed and selection of online shopping. Alongside Neiman Marcus and JC Penney, Lord & Taylor and Century 21 have also filed for bankruptcy over the course of the pandemic.
“Department stores were already weak and are certainly getting weaker,” said Brian Wieser, global president of business intelligence for GroupM, a media agency. “When you compound all of this with the idea that many of these retailers are at risk of going out of business, it certainly begs the question if anything like the old Black Friday will possibly return in a year’s time.”
Yet there are some signs that the brick-and-mortar shopping experience will not fade away with the pandemic. In consulting firm Deloitte’s annual pre-holiday survey of Black Friday shoppers, more people indicated that they will be shopping online than in-store – a first for the survey. Still, 54% of people surveyed indicated they planned on shopping in stores over the weekend.
Many retailers will be welcoming customers into stores for the Black Friday weekend, though at limited capacity and with extra safety measures, like masks and increased sanitizing. Walmart said it will open at 5am on Friday at 20% of a store’s capacity. Target is letting customers check out their items themselves on the company’s app to avoid waiting in checkout lines. Most brick-and-mortar stores are also facilitating some kind of curbside and in-store pick-up for online shoppers.
In-store shopping will stick around since consumers are happiest when they are given different choices of how to shop, Cullen said. Consumers like the convenience of online shopping and curbside pick-up, but they also want the opportunity to browse and see a product before they buy it.
“Particularly during the holiday season, we’ve seen people like in-store shopping. It’s a social activity, they’re seeing decorations, they’re picking out gifts,” Cullen said. “Holiday seasons down the road, we’re going to continue to see an interest in that in-store element, even if people embrace some of the conveniences of online shopping.”
Maybe, just maybe, the lines will be back next year.