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The Strangest Holiday Shopping Season Ever Kicks Off This Month

Holiday shopping this year is going to be markedly different from any that came before, which won’t surprise anyone. What may come as a surprise is when it will start: Any day now.


Holiday shopping season will start in October this year as shoppers look to avoid crowds and retailers look to avoid shipping delays and product shortages, according to CBRE’s 2020 U.S. Retail Holiday Trends Guide, released on Wednesday. 

“Shopping has evolved past the five-day window [from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday] already, but this year, holiday promotions will be spread out more than we’ve ever seen,” CBRE Head of Retail Research Meghann Martindale said in a videoconference with media on Wednesday to discuss the report.

The altered timeline will be the first effect of the coronavirus on the holiday shopping season, and it is likely to be more benign than much of what comes next.

CBRE projects holiday retail sales to grow less than 2% year-over-year, less than half the 4.1% average sales growth rate in the U.S. market since 2010. That sales are projected to grow at all is attributable to the explosion of e-commerce in the wake of the national, pandemic-driven shutdown in the spring, Martindale said. 

“The holiday season this year will clearly be the second e-commerce surge of 2020, after the first in April and May when in-person shopping was largely shut down across the U.S.,” Martindale said.

This year’s online holiday sales are projected to outpace last year’s by at least 40%, whereas 2019 e-commerce sales outpaced 2018’s numbers by 19%. CBRE predicts brick-and-mortar sales to contract. The exchange between in-store and online shopping is far from an even one; CBRE Retail Leader for the Americas John Morris told reporters that the accelerated transition away from in-store shopping is “not great news, generally.”

“It’s 10 to 15 times more expensive to deliver a box to a door than it is to deliver a pallet of goods to the store,” Morris said. “[Shipping to residences] is an incredibly challenging part of transportation, which makes that business hard to break even on sometimes.” 

Further suppressing profits in e-commerce is the higher rate of returns from internet sales — around 30%, Morris said, and even more so during the holidays. As retailers of all sizes have been forced to improve and expand online supply chains to remain in business this year, every in-person sale becomes more precious.

CBRE Head of Retail Research Meghann Martindale and CBRE Retail Leader for the Americas John Morris

Foot traffic at stores is projected to drop by 25%, according to research from data firm ShopperTrak reported by CNBC. Customers are likely to stay away out of a combination of pandemic-related fear and recession-related frugality, even if stores are able to avoid closing completely at any point due to surges in coronavirus cases (a diminishing possibility). What could draw them back is buying online to pick up in-store, or BOPIS, which has increased by 500% nationwide this year, CBRE reports. 

Though retail locations will have to reorganize in order to make room for social distancing, creating a welcome environment that feels safe and has something to draw a shopper’s eye will be crucial for retailers to claw back some of the impulse purchases that give holiday retail a major boost, Martindale and Morris agreed.

“We’ve talked about omnichannel retail before, but it’s actually happening in 2020,” Morris said. “The value of brick-and-mortar itself is more emphasized now in the age of e-commerce, with the ability to pick up online purchases in-store or send gifts to a store elsewhere. And combining that with the in-store experience is where retailers can gain an advantage.”

If holiday shopping now starts in October, retailers can take advantage of a rare confluence of consumer demand and the warm weather necessary to move some functions outside of the store. Neighborhood retailers are increasingly moving activities tangential to sales, like returns, gift-wrapping and gift card purchases, to kiosks and tables in the common areas of malls, on the street or in the parking lot, CBRE reports. On the West Coast and in the Southeast, this strategy could be viable deep into late autumn.

Though some of the defensive measures taken by retailers are necessary to keep some modicum of sales activity going in desperate times, they may have a lasting impact on how the U.S. sells and purchases goods. Just as e-commerce growth hit fast-forward due to the pandemic, the expansion of the holiday shopping season could be an inevitability that the current environment hastened.

“I think it’s beyond a purely 2020 experience,” Martindale said. “I think we’ll see more spreading out of holiday sales promotions, away from the doorbuster deals of Black Friday. We’ve already seen Cyber Monday turn into Cyber Week.”