The global pandemic and economic crisis have reshaped nearly every aspect of American life, and the holiday season will be no different.
Retailers are re-imagining a shopping experience that has long hinged on Black Friday door-buster deals and shelves of impulse buys. This year, analysts say, they are rethinking what they want to sell — and how.
The stakes are higher than ever: More than a dozen major retailers have already filed for bankruptcy during the pandemic and many others are at risk of running out of cash if sales don’t pick up soon. And persuading cash-strapped Americans — including nearly 30 million who are collecting unemployment benefits — to splurge on clothes, toys and electronics will be tougher than usual.
Here are five ways holiday shopping will be different this year.
Closed on Thanksgiving
After years of kicking off Black Friday sales before the turkey went into the oven, a number of the nation’s largest retailers now plan to stay shut on Thanksgiving Day.
Walmart led the charge when it announced last month that all 4,750 U.S. stores would close on the holiday, for the first time in more than 30 years. Target, Best Buy, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Kohl’s quickly followed, citing safety concerns and consumers growing reliance on online shopping.
“We know this has been a trying year, and our associates have stepped up,” John Furner, president of Walmart U.S. said in a statement. “We hope they will enjoy a special Thanksgiving Day at home with their loved ones.”
Thanksgiving Day openings, which have become increasingly popular in the past decade, have drawn scrutiny from workers’ rights groups who say employees are having to forgo a family holiday for corporate profits. This year’s changes, analysts say, are likely to change the tradition for good.
“We can all agree that, so far, 2020 has turned out differently than what we might have expected,” Best Buy said in announcing its decision. “And now, the holiday season … including Thanksgiving Day, is going to look different, too.”
Holiday sales will begin much earlier
Retailers will roll out deals sooner — before Halloween.
Target kicks off holiday sales in October, upping the ante for retailers in the race to rack up sales during the all-important fourth quarter. The three-month period can easily account for 30 to 40 percent of a company’s annual sales.
“Let’s face it: Historically, deal hunting, and holiday shopping can mean crowded events, and this isn’t a year for crowds,” Target said on its site. “That’s why our biggest holiday deals will be available earlier than ever, so you can shop safely and conveniently without worrying about missing out on deals that usually come later in the season.”
Amazon, meanwhile, postponed its Prime Day sale to two days in October, it usually happens in July, a shift that analysts say will put more pressure on competitors to offer their best holiday deals much earlier. “Everything has changed, and retailers are having to reinvent themselves,” said Marie Driscoll, a managing director at the retail advisory firm Coresight Research. “The deals will start in October, and retailers will re-up week after week — they’ll have one limited edition on week one, and week two it’ll be something else so they can get consumers to keep buying.”
Outdoor markets and parking lot pop-ups
Retailers have spent millions building up their websites with virtual try-on capabilities and other features during the pandemic. But analysts say it also will be important for them to find ways to safely accommodate consumers who want to browse and buy in person.
Shoppers at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., can scour the latest wares from more than 200 brands including Alexander McQueen, Fendi and Valentino at the mall’s newly built open-air suites on top of its parking garage. Customers must make appointments and wear masks while they shop.
Similar outdoor markets, parking lot pop-ups and sidewalk stalls are likely to crop up in other U.S. cities in the coming weeks as retailers look for ways to replicate the in-store experience in lower-risk settings.
“Pre-covid, there was a lot of real-world discovery: People would go to stores to browse and make a mental note of things they wanted to buy, either for themselves or others,” said Liad Agmon, chief executive of Dynamic Yield, which provides digital customer experience services to retailers. “Now that discovery is going to have to take place differently.”
Fewer experiences, more traditional gifts
After years of splurging on experiences like travel and entertainment, analysts say they expect gift givers to return to basics.
“In the past couple of years, we’ve seen a significant shift to gifting experiences: sporting events, trips, concerts,” said Natalie Kotlyar, head of the retail practice at consulting firm BDO. “This year we’re going to be moving away from that, back to more traditional gifts like electronics and toys.”
Many Americans have moved away from gifting objects, she said, either out of concerns about consumerism and their environmental footprint, or simply wanting to create more meaningful memories. But all of that will be more difficult to maintain this year, as family gatherings, holiday get-togethers and other outings are scaled back by the pandemic.
Instead, analysts predict, more people will be sending small gifts to family and friends by mail — or skip presents altogether. Office traditions like Secret Santa and White Elephants exchanges are also likely to fall by the wayside, as much of the workforce continues to operate from home.
Larger, more expensive toys
Overall toy sales have fallen about 20 percent at MGA Entertainment, the giant behind popular brands like L.O.L. Surprise! and Bratz dolls. But there’s one notable exception: Its Little Tikes line, where sales of ride-on toys, trampolines and $1,600 play scapes have nearly tripled in recent weeks, according to chief executive Isaac Larian.
“Families aren’t going to the movies or the theater or to Disneyland, so they’re using that money for entertainment at home,” Larian said. “Whether it’s slides, bouncers or play houses, we can’t keep them in stock.”
Larian expects that trend to continue into the holiday season. MGA is doubling down on multiuse toys for the holidays, including the Tobi, a $55 smartwatch that takes selfies, counts steps and comes with augmented reality games, he said.
Also, on the decline are what Larian calls “shut-up toys.” These are small impulse buys, the kind a harried parent at the supermarket might spend $5 “to keep my child quiet while I shop.”
“Nobody is buying those anymore,” he said. “It’s all about: How long will this toy keep my kid occupied?”