- Associated Press - Sunday, October 25, 2020

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Will COVID-19 finally be the thing that makes Black Friday a thing of the past?

With the coronavirus spreading, local businesses and national retailers can’t risk attracting the crowds that normally show up - often camping outside and waiting in line for hours - for deep discounts and special promotions. So, yes, holiday shopping is just one more thing the coronavirus pandemic has turned upside down in 2020.

But it isn’t all bad news for deal hunters.

Retailers are doing their best to safely draw in customers during the 2020 holiday shopping season by expanding the length of time to cash in on online doorbuster deals and offering curbside pickup and delivery. Local businesses also are offering innovative shopping promotions, including pre-booked shopping times and free gifts.

And they’re doing it now.



If you were waiting until November to start your holiday shopping locally or at big-box retailers, experts say you’re already behind. That’s right, the holiday shopping creep has now inched back into October. In fact, it got started before Halloween.

Since we’re still in the midst of the pandemic, national and local retailers have adopted alternative strategies for holiday shopping during the coronavirus to keep both shoppers and employees safe.

“First, they are emphasizing their online options, including curbside delivery,” said Steve Horwitz, an economics professor at Ball State University. “Second, and perhaps more important, they are extending their Black Friday sales earlier into the year.”

So what’s to become of those Black Friday savings you planned on for big-ticket items like televisions, video games and toys?

“We’ll still find steep discounts the day after Thanksgiving,” said Sara Skirboll, a retail and shopping expert with RetailMeNot. “But for 2020, Black Friday is not the official kick-off to the holiday shopping season. It’s already underway and so are the deals.”

Local retailers like Quest Outdoors, 4600 Shelbyville Road in St. Matthews, plan in-store and online deals and won’t necessarily wait for Black Friday or Small Business Saturday to launch those. Keep an eye on the social media pages of your favorite Louisville shopping destinations - like the Logan Street Market, shops on Frankfort Avenue and in downtown Louisville and the Louisville Independent Business Alliance - for deals that may pop up at any time.

Of course, it’s not easy for local businesses to always compete with prices offered at national chains and megastores, so many local shops offer free gifts and special experiences to shoppers during the holiday season. And while it will be different in 2020, that practice is also expanding.

Work the Metal, 1201 Story Ave., draws a large crowd each holiday during its special shopping experiences that include free mimosas, gift giveaways and a visit from a sexy Santa. But no one will be sitting on anyone’s lap this year, so what can holiday shoppers expect?

“On Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, we are inviting customers to book private two-hour shopping appointments for small groups,” said Jack Mathis, Work the Metal owner. “And to add to the festive feel of the holidays, customers can add food and drinks to their evening if they’d like.”

Mathis has already adjusted the flow inside his 5,000-square-foot building in Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood by widening aisles, adding registers to avoid congestion, limiting the number of shoppers inside the building and requiring masks. He plans to add more online shopping options over the next few weeks.

“We have definitely noticed from conversations with our customers that they are buying their Christmas gifts earlier this year,” Mathis said. “They are asking for their items to be gift boxed for Christmas earlier than last year.”

The Anchal Project, a sustainable, socially conscious home and textile boutique in Louisville, is also leaning into the reserved shopping trend. During its Anchal Holiday Trunk Show on Nov. 19 at Historic Whitehall, 3110 Lexington Road, customers can reserve 30-minute appointments to shop “with safety and ease” with a limit of 10 shoppers per time slot to ensure social distancing. Masks and temperature checks are required.

It’s also offering a virtual “walk and shop” option where an Anchal team member will help you find the perfect holiday gift during a private 30-minute virtual appointment.

Reservations for both shopping experiences are $20, which is turned into a corresponding $20 credit on items at checkout.

Even with all of the unique ways retailers are hoping to safely bring people in the doors, Horwitz says the upcoming holiday shopping season promises to be the most unusual one ever, as both retailers and their customers adjust to life amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The challenge of how to get sales close to typical holiday seasons while still protecting themselves and their customers is a tricky one,” he said. “No firm can afford to be the site of a super spreading event, so they have every reason to try to keep everyone safe.”

Last year, U.S. households spent an average of $511 on gifts during the winter holiday shopping season, according to Deloitte, a consultancy firm. This year, that number is projected to be about the same with one notable uptick. The National Retail Federation projects more than 60% of consumers plan to purchase the majority of their holiday items online compared to 56% last year.

Several major retailers have already changed their Black Friday plans to adjust to the ‘new normal.’ Target, Best Buy, Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Macy’s will all be closed Thanksgiving Day, and most stores will face capacity constraints that will put an end to the long lines and big crowds the following day.

“If you are someone who really enjoys strolling through store aisles and browsing to find the right gift, you may need to readjust your thinking,” Skirboll with RetailMeNot said. “If you must go out in public to holiday shop, create a list before heading to the store and get in and out as quickly as possible.”

For those who are shopping from home, the deals have already started.

Amazon Prime Day got the holiday ball rolling the second week of October. According to data by research firm Edison Trends, spending on Amazon’s U.S. e-commerce site rose 36% compared to Prime Day in 2019. Those numbers are expected to make Amazon Prime Day the top shopping day during the last three months of 2020.

Prime Day’s success jumpstarted other retailers who also launched super sales earlier this year.

Macy’s announced it will begin Black Friday sales immediately after Halloween. Target’s Black Friday deals will be online and in stores for the entire month of November, and it will offer “weeklong discounts and digital deals every day” starting Nov. 1. Home improvement chain Home Depot will stretch its Black Friday deals over nearly two months - starting in November and running through December.

Walmart has rebooted the idea of Black Friday and spread savings from one single day to three multi-day supersaver events across the month of November. “Black Friday 2020 Deals for Days” will offer deep discounts online before the sales become available in stores.

To encourage customers to socially distance and shop from home, Walmart’s Black Friday discounts are available at Walmart.com three days before they are available in the store.

“We’ve been very thoughtful as we planned this year’s event,” said Scott McCall, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer for Walmart. “By spreading deals out across multiple days and making our hottest deals available online, we expect the Black Friday experience in our stores will be safer and more manageable for both our customers and our associates.”

For those looking to make the most of their holiday shopping this year, here are some other tips from experts:

SHOP ONLINE, PICK UP LOCALLY

According to a recent consumer survey from RetailMeNot, 66% of people surveyed say they plan to spend the same amount of money or more during the upcoming holiday season as they did in 2019 as a way to create a sense of normalcy and keep traditions alive.

Three-quarters of those same shoppers said they’d prefer to shop online this year, and the same amount will aim to complete all of their holiday shopping as early as possible.

When you shop online, you can save on shipping fees when you opt for the curbside pick up at your local retailer. This is especially true if it’s a bulky or heavy item, such as a TV or exercise equipment. And hey, it almost feels like you actually went shopping at your favorite brick-and-mortar store.

Something else to consider this year is potential delivery delays with so many shoppers transitioning to online shopping. Skirboll said to consider curbside pickup whenever possible, which many national and local retailers are offering this year.

“An important option to keep in mind is buying online and picking up in-store or curbside,” said Skirboll. “With curbside being a safe way for shoppers to handle their holiday shopping this year and staying out of stores, it also helps ensure timely delivery of gifts.”

SHOULD YOU BUY NOW OR WAIT FOR LATER?

New toys, video games and apparel may be on the top of kids’ and teens’ holiday wish lists, and as we edge closer to the holidays, retailers will often run extra sales. But we all know if you wait too long for the hottest items, we run the risk of losing out.

“If it’s a ‘must-have item’ on someone’s list, you may want to go ahead and buy it and not wait on a sale,” Skirboll said. “But first, be sure to search the internet for coupons or cash-back options.”

Other popular items that probably won’t go on sale and may already be hard to find during the COVID-19 outbreak include indoor fitness equipment, outdoor patio heaters, homebrew kits and items that make working from home more comfortable.

“As social distancing measures continue into the winter, we’re seeing ‘nesting’ items staying very popular,” said Skirboll. “People started preparing for a long winter by purchasing things to make their homes more enjoyable and functional. They’re also buying outdoor items like sleds, snowshoes and patio heaters.”

The extended online-shopping palooza, courtesy of COVID-19, may not be as much fun for those who enjoy the physicality of winning a doorbuster deal in person, but during a pandemic, it makes a lot more sense.

“By stretching out the holiday shopping season over more than two months, they are engaging in a kind of social distancing through time,” said economics professor Horwitz. “With more time to shop for great deals, fewer people will want to be in the store on any given day, including the Friday after Thanksgiving, and that will keep everyone safer.”

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