Will the holiday shopping season be different this year? Yes, because it’s already begun

This year’s holiday shopping season will definitely be different than other years due to COVID-19.

Instead of encouraging massive crowds to gather to grab break-of-dawn Black Friday specials, retailers are already beginning to offer sales to encourage people to shop early and safely, whether it be shopping in stores, online, or using curbside pickup.

“We’ve seen some data that says customers will be looking for value earlier and participating less in that all-important one-day event in stores,” Bed Bath & Beyond CEO Mark Tritton told CNBC. “It’s a very different season. And I think we’re all going to learn together as we go through it.”

Seventy-four percent of retailers say they believe consumers will spread their holiday shopping out over several months, according to a National Retail Federation survey of 54 retailers.

This year’s Amazon’s “Prime Day” seems to have set the tone and the starting point for the holiday shopping season. When Prime Day — the big two-day sales event for Amazon Prime members — was moved to Oct. 13 and 14, other retailers were ready and waiting with their own sales.

Walmart, for example, counteracted with the “Big Save” from Oct. 11-15. Target held its “Deal Days” on Oct. 13 and 14. Boscov’s held its annual “Friends really Helping Friends” event, where shoppers receive a 20{7a29899c2a662aacc0f1fbce4734bf0fa9b1728ca189d6de0dac31e0a8c80999} discount off the lowest sale prices with 5{7a29899c2a662aacc0f1fbce4734bf0fa9b1728ca189d6de0dac31e0a8c80999} of the purchase price donated to charities, on Oct. 14 and 15.

Deal-hunters take advantage of pre-Black Friday shopping at Best Buy on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 2019. Dan Gleiter | [email protected]

Best Buy came right out and billed it as the day the retailer kicked off its Black Friday deals, and told shoppers they could get deals on dozens of items straight from its not-yet-released Black Friday advertisement.

And stores like Walmart and Target have announced plans to extend Black Friday sales over a longer period.

Views of the Capital region during the coronavirus pandemic, March 26, 2020

The Walmart on Route 322 in Swatara Township at noon, March 27, 2020. Views of the Capital region during the coronavirus pandemic. Dan Gleiter | [email protected]

This year, Target said it is adding nearly 1 million more deals than last year, spanning from October through December and the company will offer Black Friday deals throughout the entire month of November as well as weeklong discounts and digital deals every day, beginning Nov. 1.

Walmart has announced its “Black Friday Deals for Days” with deals beginning online three days before the deals hit its stores. The sales will begin Nov. 4, 11 and 25 and will hit the stores on Nov. 7, 14 and 27.

“We’ve been very thoughtful as we planned this year’s event,” Scott McCall, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer for Walmart U.S. said in a press release. “By spreading deals out across multiple days and making our hottest deals available online, we expect the Black Friday experience in our stores will be safer and more manageable for both our customers and our associates.”

Walmart will be closed on Thanksgiving for the first time in years and will reopen at 5 a.m. on Black Friday, which is on Nov. 27 this year. Other national retailers that have opened on Thanksgiving in past years have said they won’t do that this year.

Views of the Capital region during the coronavirus pandemic, March 26, 2020

Target at Paxton Towne Centre on Jonestown Road in Lower Paxton Township at 1:35 p.m., March 26, 2020. Views of the Capital region during the coronavirus pandemic. Dan Gleiter | [email protected]

Officials from Target and Walmart would not comment further. Officials from Boscov’s and Best Buy couldn’t be reached for comment.

Retailers also are pushing their curbside pickup services, allowing customers to shop online and pick up their orders at the store. And there is good reason for that. As more people shop online, retailers are bracing for a large increase in last-minute online shopping that could create logistical problems, extra business expenses and unhappy customers.

The overall volume of packages that need to make it from a retailer to a customer’s doorstep will likely exceed shipping capacity by five percent globally, potentially delaying up to 700 million holiday packages, according to software company Salesforce. And retailers are expected to face large amount of delivery surcharges, as shippers prepare for a massive shift to digital commerce, according to Salesforce’s forecast.

Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights for the National Retail Federation says that sales starting early is nothing new. She said it is part of a trend that has been going on for the last several years and that this year retailers are spreading out sales even more so as to prevent everyone from showing up at stores for a traditional Black Friday.

Cullen said over the last few years retailers have been trying to get shoppers to shop earlier and earlier for the holiday season but admits it’s different this year.

“It’s kind of more of a bigger strategy across retailers to get people to shop early,” she said. “It just might not have been as early as we see right now.”

“Pointing everyone to one big event on a single day wouldn’t be a good idea this year,” she said, due to the coronavirus pandemic. “Retailers know that this is a year that consumers are going to be cautious about shopping in stores.”

The National Retail Federation has launched a nationwide consumer education campaign called “New Holiday Traditions” to encourage consumers to not only shop safe but to shop early.

“In a year that has been full of uncertainty, we encourage consumers to avoid the last-minute stresses of the holiday season like long lines and shipping delays,” Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation said in an announcement. “Retailers are ready with inventory and sales, and there’s no reason to wait until Thanksgiving weekend to kick off your gift shopping.”

The National Retail Federation’s survey also found that 59 percent of people plan to shift more of their shopping online compared to last year.

“From what we’ve seen .. people are definitely looking to shop online,” Cullen said. “We know that retailers are anticipating this.”

The consulting firm Deloitte forecasts that overall holiday retail sales are likely to increase between 1{7a29899c2a662aacc0f1fbce4734bf0fa9b1728ca189d6de0dac31e0a8c80999} and 1.5{7a29899c2a662aacc0f1fbce4734bf0fa9b1728ca189d6de0dac31e0a8c80999}, compared to a 4.1 {7a29899c2a662aacc0f1fbce4734bf0fa9b1728ca189d6de0dac31e0a8c80999} jump last year, but predicts that e-commerce sales will grow by 25{7a29899c2a662aacc0f1fbce4734bf0fa9b1728ca189d6de0dac31e0a8c80999} to 35{7a29899c2a662aacc0f1fbce4734bf0fa9b1728ca189d6de0dac31e0a8c80999}, year-over-year during the 2020-2021 holiday season, compared to sales increasing by 14.7{7a29899c2a662aacc0f1fbce4734bf0fa9b1728ca189d6de0dac31e0a8c80999} in 2019.

“The lower projected holiday growth this season is not surprising given the state of the economy,” Daniel Bachman, Deloitte’s U.S. economic forecaster said in a statement. “While high unemployment and economic anxiety will weigh on overall retail sales this holiday season, reduced spending on pandemic-sensitive services such as restaurants and travel may help bolster retail holiday sales somewhat. E-commerce is likely to be a big winner because consumers have shown a clear movement towards buying online rather than at brick and mortar stores.”

And while quite a bit may be riding on a number of retailers who are on the brink of bankruptcy or are already there, retail sales were actually way up over the summer, as customers returned to many stores that had been forced to closed due to the impact of COVID-19 and related state shutdowns of non-essential business.

And while this is a tough time for many retailers, there are signs of hope.

“One of the encouraging signs starting this summer is retail sales really did come back,” Cullen said.

Retail sales were up 8.5 percent year-over-year on a three-month average of June, July and August compared to last year, and in July sales were actually up 9.6 percent compared to last year, according to the National Retailer Federation.

And the organization’s August numbers give some great insight into what people are buying, where they’re shopping and what they’re not buying.

As far as where people are shopping, online and other non-store sales were up 20.1 percent compared to last year.

What people are buying shows sort of a COVID-19 model of people staying at home and eating at home more, and doing more do-it-yourself projects, more gardening and more outside leisure activities.

Sales for building materials and garden supply stores were up nearly 12 percent. Grocery and beverage store sales were up 8.3 {7a29899c2a662aacc0f1fbce4734bf0fa9b1728ca189d6de0dac31e0a8c80999}. And sporting goods stores were up 8.3{7a29899c2a662aacc0f1fbce4734bf0fa9b1728ca189d6de0dac31e0a8c80999} even though those numbers were down 5.7{7a29899c2a662aacc0f1fbce4734bf0fa9b1728ca189d6de0dac31e0a8c80999} compared to July.

What shoppers are not buying as much of is bad news for apparel retailers, some of which are on their last lifeline as a number of them face potential bankruptcy and store closings. Clothing and clothing accessory store sales were down 23.5 percent compared to last year.

Whatever people buy this year or where they buy it, one thing is for certain, this year is different than any other.

“This holiday is going to be unlike any holiday season I think any of us have ever seen before,” Levi Strauss & Co. CEO Chip Bergh told CNBC.

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