NEW YORK – Add last-minute holiday shopping to the list of time-honored traditions being upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Retailers are kicking off the holiday season earlier than ever this year in hopes of avoiding big in-store crowds and shipping bottlenecks in November and December.
Stores like Best Buy, Macy’s, and Target typically offer their biggest Black Friday deals over Thanksgiving weekend, but now they're starting them in October so people don’t crowd their stores later, creating a potentially dangerous situation during a pandemic.
And with more people expected to shop online, retailers are trying to avoid a rush of orders closer to Christmas, which could lead to late packages and more expensive shipping. Many had a hard time keeping up with the surge in buying when shoppers were locked down in their homes during the early days of the pandemic. Even Amazon, which has spent 25 years building warehouses and a delivery network, had to hire an additional 175,000 workers to meet demand.
Black Friday has long been the unofficial start to the U.S. holiday season, though retailers have been pushing holiday shopping earlier for the last decade or so.
This year there’s more urgency. With the coronavirus still spreading in the U.S., stores have had to rethink their usual holiday plans. Thanksgiving Day doorbusters are canceled. There will still be in-store sales the day after Thanksgiving, but companies are expected to try to steer many shoppers to their websites to avoid crowds and chaos.
“We’re preparing for a holiday season unlike any we’ve seen before,” said Target CEO Brian Cornell.
With many people out of work and even more uncertain about their economic futures, this isn’t expected to be a banner year for holiday sales. Shoppers will likely buy fewer gifts because they won't be traveling to big family holiday gatherings. And they'll be focused on gifts related to activities around the home, from workout wear to home goods and gaming consoles. One bright spot: People are spending less on experiences like travel and eating out, which have siphoned away holiday sales over the past few years.
“Shoppers are going to be very selective in what they buy,''' said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics, a retail research firm. “Retailers, particularly department stores and specialty clothing chains, need to get it right in terms of inventory and customer traffic. They're fighting for their lives."