US Retail Sales Grow as Holiday Season Nears


This year has had unexpected twists and turns. In March, the Covid pandemic caused many—if not most—parts of the country to shutdown and consumers to shelter-in place. Stores closed, sales went online. The holiday season is here, and while Black Friday typically ushers in super shopping season, this year, the holiday season might have kicked off much earlier.

What’s in store for stores now? How will sales look for the holiday shopping days of December? Retail sales come to life as the holiday season approaches, and, even during Covid, December shoppers may still inject life into the retail sector. Here’s a glimpse at what the holiday shopping season might look like during Covid and possible predictions for retail.

A Black Friday Retrospective: Did Stores Stay in the Red?

Britannica explains that Black Friday is often misconstrued as the day that stores begin turning a profit. Being in the red denotes financial loss, while black indicates profit. However, Britannica points out that the term actually was coined from the complete mayhem of the day for police officers in Philadelphia (and, likely, elsewhere). Since so many shoppers turn out for all the sales in the city, the crowds often create a busy day for the police force.  

In later years, though, Britannica notes that the narrative changed and was explained with the profit/loss connotation. While Black Friday might not necessarily be the day that sales take losses into huge profits, the beginning of the massive holiday shopping season does represent a boon for business. 

This year, the Black Friday sales had some stiff competition. Amazon moved it’s famous Prime Day to October after pushing it back because of Covid. Amazon’s Prime Day typically inspires small and local businesses to reach out to their customer base, too, and encourage them to shop local.

Were consumers out hunting for the holidays on Prime Day? Perhaps. Regardless of what they purchased and why, the October sale was a huge success for Amazon. Fortune reported that sales were 36 percent higher this year than in 2019. However, Amazon might not have been gearing Prime Day for the holidays. In fact, CNBC reported that Amazon released holiday deals two days after Prime Day.  

So what will December hold? Retail Dive offered predictions in mid-October for what holiday sales might look like this year. The site notes that most experts made cautious predictions; Retail Dive talked to Howard Meitiner, managing director for Carl Marks Advisors, who said in an interview with the site that “If sales are flat overall—that would be success.” The takeaway? This year’s sales might not be so blockbuster.

Retail Dive had five predictions about the holiday shopping season for 2020:

  • There will be a longer holiday season. 
  • E-Commerce will be the preference.
  • Store fulfillment will be in demand.
  • There may be issues receiving shipments.
  • Consumers will plan their in-store visits carefully.
Retail Sales Grow as Holiday Season Nears

A Longer Holiday Shopping Season

There are always shoppers who begin checking off their shopping list early. Christmas in July? Yes, some consumers might even begin holiday shopping during the summer. While summer shopping might not be the norm, apparently October shopping might have been common this year (again…look at Prime Day). Retail Dive referenced data from AlixPartners that noted that almost half of consumers anticipated kicking off their holiday shopping around Halloween (maybe even earlier!). 

That’s right…Halloween might have become the new Black Friday (sans the deals), at least during the craziness of Covid, where everything feels flipped upside down.  While Black Friday certainly wasn’t cancelled, many sales were featured online. Walmart’s Black Friday ad teased “Black Friday Deals for Days” and “More Deals Online.” The prominence of online shopping also leads to the second prediction from Retail Dive.

E-Commerce will be the Preference

Depending on state and local mandates, shopping may already be a get-in-get-out type of experience. In places where Covid is soaring, consumers might not be too interested in spending hours in a crowded store…or any enclosed area with total strangers.

In the beginning of the pandemic, many stores shuttered if they were non-essential. Survival might have required an online presence and a pivot to virtual shopping experiences. While some areas of the country have reopened and stores have welcomed back shoppers, some consumers might prefer to shop from home out of caution. Retail Dive noted that The International Council of Shopping Centers released a report that online sales may surge by about a quarter this year. 

If reports are showing such an increase in online sales, stores would obviously take note of this trend.Typical Black Friday sales were all about luring shoppers into the store with amazing deals. This year, sales began earlier and many were online (as well as in the store). 

Store Fulfillment May be in Demand

Online sales require items to be shipped; these shipped items have to be prepped and packed at the fulfillment center. One of Retail Dive’s predictions is that retail stores will be boosting employee numbers in the fulfillment area.

It isn’t uncommon for retail to beef up its in-store employee numbers during the holiday shopping season. Stores need more hands on deck to help customers with in-store purchases and selections. However, as shopping moves online or leans heavily toward in-store pickup, stores need to meet the customer’s demands. Thus, online orders or curbside pickup means more seasonal jobs for fulfillment.

Prepare for ‘Shipageddon’

Receiving packages during Covid has been kind of hit or miss. Retail Dive reports that UPS and FedEx are boosting surcharges, too. But the site explains that shipping could be an issue during the holiday season, and packages may be delayed.

Back in Mid-October, The New York Times warned of ‘Shipageddon.’ And a story for the Wall Street Journal began with a rather frank holiday message to consumers:  “One holiday item is already sold out: shipping capacity.”

CNN spoke with Hannah Testani, chief operating officer of Intelligent Audit, who advised that those who want their packages delivered by Christmas should place orders by Dec. 1. 

With an early December order deadline, holiday shopping may be incredibly crunched. This year, Black Friday falls on November 27. Shoppers may need to think less about those purchases, hit buy and place orders to meet that recommended order deadline for a Christmas arrival date.

Consumers May Plan Shopping Trips Carefully

In past years, maybe it wasn’t so uncommon for shoppers to hit up half a dozen stores during a shopping excursion for holiday gifts…especially during Black Friday sales. This year, though, consumers are worried about Covid, and they likely don’t want to visit multiple stores.

Retail Dive gives the advantage to ‘Big Box’ stores (Costco, Target, Walmart, etc.).  Why? Consumers can get a variety of items at these stores. They can shop technology, buy clothes, peruse home goods and hit up cosmetics, too. Of course, all these stores also offer toys…so shoppers can check the kids off their list.

These are one-and-done shopping experiences. For buyers who are concerned about cleanliness, about safety and large crowds, limiting store visits may be the trend this year.

Retail Sales Grow as Holiday Season Nears

How Can Consumers Tailor Their Shopping Experience?

The five predictions from Retail Dive give consumers a bit of insight as to how this season may play out differently for holiday shopping. While predictions might or might not come true, they may be the best guess as to how to plan ahead. Consumers who put off their shopping list closer to Christmas might face some tough realizations beyond limited stocks of desired items. 

Those who are pushing back their purchases also might have no chance to receive them on time because of shipping backups. Procrastinating shoppers, therefore, may not be able to choose between online shopping and visiting the actual store. Delaying those purchases may require in-store shopping. 

For late shoppers who are trying to avoid too many crowds, choosing store trips carefully may be the only option. As we’re heading into the few weeks leading up to Christmas, here are some tips to ease your shopping woes if you are, in fact, one of the procrastinators:

  • Look up sales online. See if they’re offered in the store, too.
  • Call the store to check stock of desirable items; some store web sites may offer stock info online.
  • Plan your trip. If you can find a store that has all the gifts in one place, this may be the best option to limit your exposure to crowds.
  • Need to ship gifts? Contact Fedex or UPS to inquire about arrival estimates.
  • Check store hours. With Covid spread, some stores may offer limited hours. Others may limit crowds. Covid mandates may be ever-changing. Prepare for these changes.
  • Create a back-up plan for gift purchases. If you can’t find a particular item, have another gift idea on the list…just in case.
  • If all else fails, gift cards for experiences or to a favorite store may be a great last-minute gift option.

Ideally, consumers will have prepared for their holiday shopping early this year. Online shopping is becoming the new normal, and these virtual store visits make purchasing gifts so easy. Be prepared for shipping delays, though. And, if you do need to visit actual stores for those gifts, make sure you are armed with a list. Making a list allows you to buy what you need and will save time.

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