With the holiday shopping season creeping into October, retailers are bracing for a historically long shopping season that is expected to take place mainly online.
The coronavirus pandemic has pummeled the retail industry over the last six months, causing store closures or bankruptcy filings, while retailers who have made it this far have bought up liquidated inventory to stock shelves, after they canceled shipments expecting a continued slump in consumption.
But big box stores such as Walmart, Target and Best Buy are capitalizing on Amazon’s delayed Prime Day event, which typically runs over two days in the summer to jump start sales early. The goal is to encourage shopping early in an effort to keep crowds out of stores and smooth out any burden on their distribution chains that might come with an increase in online ordering, said Victoria Sakal, managing director of brand intelligence with Morning Consult data analytics company.
“Shopping earlier is good for these retailers because they can start their sales,” she said. “They have to be creative in how they create spikes and peaks in demand but the idea is there won’t be as many stock risks and crowds as we come closer to the holidays.”
Forecasting 2020 holiday sales is “like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without all the pieces.”
A Morning Consult consumer survey in September found that 19 percent of people plan to begin their holiday shopping early in part out of concerns for delivery and product availability. A recent survey by the retail trade association National Retail Federation found that about 53 percent of shoppers plan to buy early.
But it’s unclear if an earlier shopping season will result in more money spent.
With a possible resurgence of new coronavirus infections and the November elections, forecasting 2020 holiday sales is “like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without all the pieces,” the NRF said earlier this month.
“There is nothing in history to equate to what we’re facing in the pandemic,” said Bill Thorne, a spokesperson for the NRF. “There is no model that we could use to predict what we’ll see.”
Consumer surveys show a range of responses when it comes to how much they plan to spend on holiday shopping, which underscores the unpredictability of the course of the season this year. According to consulting firm AlixPartners, 23 percent of shoppers expect to spend less this year and 25 percent expect to spend more. Morning Consult found that a full 67 percent of surveyed consumers plan to spend less this year.
Deloitte reported in September that it estimates holiday retail sales are likely to increase between 1 and 1.5 percent. It forecasts that e-commerce sales will grow between 25 percent to 35 percent, compared to last year.
Retailers are depending on sales events such as Prime Day this week to keep shoppers engaged and spread out holiday orders, Thorne said.
With Prime Day pushed to October, it could lead some consumers to feel "deal fatigue" and become less enthusiastic about discounts because retailers have been steeply discounting nonessential products throughout the pandemic, said Greg Malen, vice president of solutions at SimilarWeb, a web analytics firm.
“It’s a really interesting balance marketers and companies will have to strike because there will always be a new deal,” said Sakal with Morning Consult.
The coronavirus pandemic has also encouraged people to shop online rather than in store on Black Friday, which is traditionally the shopping event that kicks off the holiday season, according to Morning Consult. This year, 52 percent of people are planning to skip shopping in person on Black Friday, with only 12 percent expecting to head to a store.
This dynamic has thrown into question whether or not Black Friday is dead. Some analysts believe the holiday is slowly becoming obsolete with the rise of online shopping and consumer preferences for deals over the course of the holiday season rather than a concentration of discounts on a single day.
“The traditional November-December holiday-season definition is meaningless this year — and, I would argue, for the future as well,” said Joel Bines, global co-leader of the retail practice at Alix Partners and a managing director at the firm. “The pandemic has accelerated what was well on its way to happening anyway; the question now for retailers is whether and how fast they can adapt to this new world.”
Kathy Daisy, an unemployed former thrift store worker in Athens, Texas, told NBC News she plans to spend $80 this year on holiday gifts, down from $200 last year. She’s planning to shop a mix of small businesses in her area and mass retailers such as Amazon and Walmart.
“Being unemployed is definitely hard and it's scary to keep food on the plate,” she said. “I am going to be spending less this year. But I’ve seen small businesses with low prices like $5 earrings, necklaces and beanies so I'm setting a budget on that.”