Black Friday Just Part Of One Long, Weird Shopping Season This Year
The Black Friday of yore was already in flux before the coronavirus pandemic. As consumers shifted to online shopping, the enticement to stand in a line in the wee morning hours for a $99 flat-screen waned. Why go through all that when you can just stay home and shop online?
But while online shopping gradually reshaped Black Friday over the years, the coronavirus has rapidly changed what’s perhaps the central element of the day.
“Black Friday was always about getting as many people in the stores as possible, but now it’s almost the opposite,” said Michael Baker, a retail analyst with D.A. Davidson Cos.
This year’s annual holiday retail survey from consulting firm Deloitte, released in October, found that almost 51% of holiday consumers felt anxious about in-store shopping. In the interest of keeping the capacity of physical stores down, retailers spread out sales and got an early start this year.
Amazon pushed its two-day Prime Day from July to October due to the pandemic, and big-box retailers like Target, Best Buy and Walmart launched Black Friday-type sales that month too — some of them on the same days as Amazon’s promotion — instead of in November as they usually would. A September National Retail Federation study of 54 retailers showed that 62% of respondents planned to have the majority of their inventory in stock in October.
“Black Friday is still an important day,” Baker said, but the days of its status as a one-day blowout that pushed stores into profitability hasn’t been the case for years and is certainly less so this year.
Last year’s holiday season drew $730.2B, according to the National Retail Federation, but that only includes November and December totals. A September estimate from Deloitte predicts roughly $1.15 trillion could be spent this holiday season, counting November through January.
Holiday sales are shaping up to be solid, but that is thanks largely to high expected digital sales, Bloomberg Intelligence Senior U.S. Retail Analyst Poonam Goyal said.
Last year, online sales on Black Friday totaled a record-breaking $7.4B online. Deloitte is forecasting that this year’s e-commerce holiday sales could generate between $182B and $196B. Last year, e-commerce grew 14.7% according to Deloitte. This year, the consulting firm anticipates 25% to 35% growth in online sales, building on an already booming trend. With digital sales dominating, "this Black Friday will be very different than it ever was in the past," Goyal said.
The new, longer shopping season offers potential public health and supply chain advantages for retailers.
The typical Black Friday rush is hard for retailers to plan inventory, so spreading sales out benefits them from an operational standpoint. Now, instead of needing to procure and store a huge amount of inventory for a sharp one-day spike in sales, there is a steadier, more manageable demand, Baker said.
The desire to spread out sales and reduce the number of people in stores at a time means that those who do go into a brick-and-mortar or mall will have a dramatically different holiday experience than in prior years.
“Most of our properties are being managed at 25 to 50% capacity,” said Molly Unger, vice president of shopping center management for mall landlord Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield.
The percentage of capacity that malls and the stores in them operate at may change, but all will be kept at less than full capacity as a result of the pandemic. That applies no matter where in the country they are, said Unger, who oversees shopping centers across the country.
Throttling store capacity also affects workers. Seasonal jobs in stores are not as plentiful as they were in years prior. Staffing was once a huge part of Black Friday, Unger said, as people were needed to staff every register and restock cleared-out shelves after the day’s rush. That same September survey by the National Retail Federation found that half of retailer respondents were not planning to hire seasonal workers.
“Now, you’re being conservative with the amount of staff that you have and need,” Unger said.
Meanwhile, warehouses and fulfillment centers are struggling to find enough workers to meet what they expect will be a huge demand to round out the year, Vox reported. Vox cited a logistics industry report, Logistics Managers’ Index, that predicts Q4 activity will be up 50% compared to last year, a sizable leap from the pre-pandemic forecast of a 13% increase.
Consumers' pandemic-related economic concerns will also play a big role in holiday spending totals. Almost 40% of consumers participating in the Deloitte survey said they planned to spend less for the holidays than the year before, “a level not seen since the financial crisis,” Deloitte said. Of those who planned to spend less, half said that general concerns about the economy were the motivation for holding back.
But even with larger economic concerns looming large for many shoppers, Deloitte estimated that the average household will spend just under $1.4K this holiday season, just 7% less than last year. A larger portion of that total will go to retail items than previously, compensating for households spending much less on travel than in years prior.
Some experts said that so many unusual factors make this whole holiday season a wait-and-see situation, but others are sounding the alarm that the season might be taking a turn for the worse. A November 17 report from The Wall Street Journal cited U.S. Census Bureau data that shows that seasonally adjusted October sales gains were 0.3%, not the 5% estimated by economists and below September’s 1.6% gains. “Consumer spending is slowing at the worst possible time,” the WSJ reported.
Deloitte survey's also forecast a sales gain of 1% to 1.5% for this holiday season. Although last year, holiday sales grew 4.1%, this season’s projected gains aren’t bad considering that we are in a pandemic, Goyal said.
Estimates of low single-digital retail sales growth pencil out when you consider that retailers that were outperforming expectations will likely continue to do so and stores that were struggling will likely continue to struggle, Goyal said.
“There’s going to be a divide between who wins and who loses this holiday season,” Goyal said.
In a year where the theme has generally been uncertainty, one thing is for sure. “This Black Friday will be very different than it ever was in the past,” Goyal said.