Pandemic pushes start of holiday shopping earlier than ever

ap photo Holiday knick-knacks stand are displayed for Christmas shoppers Friday at a Lowes store in Northglenn, Colo. Add last-minute holiday shopping to the list of time-honored traditions being upended by the coronavirus pandemic.

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.”

The first big holiday push will come from Amazon, which is positioning its mid-October Prime Day as a kickoff to the holiday shopping season. This is the first time Amazon has held Prime Day so close to the holidays. It’s usually in July, but was postponed this year.

That will put pressure on stores to offer deals around the same time, too. Target and Walmart have already said they will hold their own sales during the same time as Amazon’s. Best Buy will offer deals in October, earlier than it ever has.

Even with the early start to the season, holiday sales are expected to deliver smaller gains than in recent years. But no one really knows what’s going to happen.

Joel Bines, who runs the retail practice at AlixPartners, thinks the earlier shopping will stick even when the pandemic is over. He likens it to when most major stores started opening on Thanksgiving Day after one or two stores did it for the first time a decade ago as a way to jumpstart Black Friday sales.

“This is here to stay,” Bines said. “The new holiday season is October through January.”


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