An invisible shopping companion flips the Black Friday script

Retailers adjust and public health experts urge caution in the pandemic

e-commerce: hands reaching out of laptops to exchange money for shopping bag.
e-commerce (photo from Pixabay)

Kohl’s Department Stores went back to staying closed on Thanksgiving this year. The Buy Local campaign for Madison merchants is shepherding shoppers to hometown retailers’ online sales portals instead of actual stores. And an epidemiologist advises, stay home and watch the NFL, sans spectators.

Between economic uncertainty for consumers and the potentially fatal hazards of crowds, the COVID-19 pandemic is rewriting the rules for Black Friday — like just about everything else about 2020.

“It will be unlike any other Thanksgiving week shopping that we’ve had, I imagine,” says retailing expert Jerry O’Brien.

The day after Thanksgiving has long been the traditional kickoff for the December holiday shopping season, and every year it seems to get more intense — bigger deals, bigger crowds, bigger gimmicks. The day’s nickname comes from retailing lore that says merchants don’t see their accounts move into the black — from loss to profits for the year — until holiday shopping starts.

UW-Madison epidemiologist Dr. Ajay Sethi is hoping that foot traffic will be modest and safe.

“I anticipate there’ll be less Black Friday shopping this year compared to last year, because a sizable proportion of people are well aware of our pandemic,” says Sethi, an associate professor of population health sciences and faculty director of the UW-Madison master of public health degree program. “It obviously needs to be minimal, because we want to have really no crowding anywhere, for at least the next several weeks or months, so we can stop the spread of COVID in the state.”

Perhaps this year’s biggest Black Friday change is that retailers effectively started Black Friday weeks ago.

“They’re pretty much all coming out openly saying, ‘We’re going to spread Black Friday out through November,’” says O’Brien, who is executive director of the Kohl’s Center for Retailing Excellence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Felicia Miller, chair of the marketing department at Marquette University’s college of business administration, agrees.

“Places like Lowe’s or Macy’s just declared, Black Friday’s not going to be just one day — it’s going to be several weeks leading up into the Christmas season,” Miller says. “They’re doing that to diffuse the impact that Amazon has around this time of year — they’re trying to compete in a different kind of way.”

Customer safety

Spreading out Black Friday — and the resulting crowds — is also a bid to help customers feel safer. “Big crowds in the stores is something that most retailers, whether they’re local, regional or national, are trying to avoid,” says O’Brien. “By spreading it out, they’re hoping to allow people to do a little better job of social distancing.”

While the general public may be polarized about the pandemic and public health measures — with a vocal minority rejecting mask requirements and ignoring physical distancing rules or even shelter-in-place recommendations — O’Brien says retailers appear to be more uniformly embracing policies for masks and social distancing than a few months ago.

At the same time, online shopping, already boosted dramatically by the pandemic, will be much more prevalent, both Miller and O’Brien agree. Even when a vaccine allows people to resume more of their pre-COVID-19 mobility, O’Brien expects that some of the new online shopping business will stay there rather than returning to foot traffic: “I think people are developing new habits.”

While there are some indications retail sales may actually be up some this year, O’Brien calls a realistic forecast “incredibly challenging with all those puzzle pieces that haven’t come into focus yet,” particularly the continuing economic impact of the pandemic on consumer spending.

He’s more comfortable predicting that, in the competition among retailers to show shoppers they can feel safe in their stores, the shoppers are likely to encounter good deals.

“Obviously, this is a huge time of anxiety for a lot of people, customers and businesses,” O’Brien says. “But the end result is people working incredibly hard to satisfy consumers.”

But if they do venture out to brick-and-mortar outlets, what will shoppers find?

In Madison and Dane County, the combined city-county health department has a strict, new order in place that forbids indoor gatherings until mid-December. Retail stores are not covered by that provision in the order, but they must continue to abide by earlier provisions limiting them to 50% of their normal capacity.

Rules for retailers

“We want all businesses that are planning to be open and operating as a retail setting for Black Friday, to really re-examine the COVID-19 policies that they have in place around hygiene, cleaning and protective measures, and look for ways that they can really promote online sales and ways that they can protect their staff by staggering shifts, having longer hours, creating more spaces for people to distance,” says Bonnie Koenig, environmental health supervisor for Public Health Madison & Dane County.

The order also requires retailers to plan for and manage lines, including clearly marked areas outside their stores, in order to ensure people are at least six feet apart from others who are outside their household group. And they must designate separate entrance and exit doors where possible.

“Business should also offer alternatives to lines, including allowing customers to wait in the car for a text message or a phone call, and scheduling pickups or entries to stores,” Koenig says. “We also as individuals need to do our part by making some really good choices to stay home when we can, and when we can’t, making sure we follow those protective measures of wearing face coverings and distancing ourselves.”

Being in “close contact” with another person means being less than 6 feet away, and it heightens the risk of transmitting the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.

“if I can maintain 6 feet or further from anyone during the time that I’m out shopping, I’m preventing myself from being in close contact, and I’m protecting myself in that way,” Koenig says. “And then by wearing a face covering that is required in all those spaces, I’m further protecting myself and others.”

Every year at this time Dane Buy Local, which promotes locally owned business in Madison and Dane County, seeks to encourage shoppers to patronize its 600 member home-grown merchants, typically focusing on the “Small Business Saturday” promotion that takes place the day after Black Friday.

This year the group tweaked its methods. It introduced a gift card that can be used at many of the participating businesses. It also opened a new MarketPlace on the Dane Buy Local website to make it easier for shoppers to order online from participating merchants.

And in place of “Small Business Saturday” and other holiday season shopping special days (such as “Artsy Sunday” and “Local Cyber Monday,” to promote online shopping), Dane Buy Local instituted “Shop Indie Local,” which began Nov. 1 and runs to the end of the year “to encourage consumers to shop at local, independently owned businesses throughout the holiday season.”

The coronavirus also gave new significance to the group’s core message. Because member businesses have seen their sales decline in the pandemic because of limited hours and smaller staffs, shopping local “is more important now than ever,” states the organization, citing research that concludes 47 cents of every dollar spent at an independent local business returns to the community, compared with 14 cents for chain stores.

Getting Thanksgiving back

At the other end of the retailing spectrum, Kohl’s Department Stores, headquartered in Menomonee Falls, Wis., gave its Black Friday plans a makeover as well.

The chain is promoting its coronavirus safety precautions: It requires customers as well as employees to wear masks, has installed protective barriers at registers and posted signs and decals to guide shoppers through the stores while reminding them to stay physically distant. And, like most large retail chains now, it has made it possible for customers to pick up their orders without getting out of their cars.

Kohl’s also once again closed on Thanksgiving Day. In that it joined most other retailers, reversing a trend that started about a decade ago when stores began staying open on the holiday, to the horror of family holiday purists and the delight of others who welcomed an excuse to get out and shake off their turkey coma.

Thanksgiving closures are  not entirely a pandemic byproduct. Some retailers pulled back from the Black Friday creep to the evening before two or three years ago, and more followed. “The numbers show that truthfully, all they did was spread Friday, Saturday sales into Thursday Fridays, Saturday,” says O’Brien. “So it was not a huge net gain for the industry.”

The reversal was led by companies like the outdoor gear store REI — “companies that are really into  social justice and equity and access,” says Miller. It accelerated last year, and she expects returning Thanksgiving to a store holiday to be widespread this year.

“In this environment, it just seems kind of unsavory” to be open on what for many families will probably be a day of much smaller gatherings, Miller says.

“Because of COVID, because of social justice issues, we’re thinking more small,” she adds. Small business is getting more attention, she finds. “There’s been just a lot of consumers who are thinking differently about what the holiday season is.”

Sethi says the risk of the virus should be enough to persuade people to stay home and avoid the crowds.

“My inbox is full of enticing emails about online shopping for Black Friday,” the UW epidemiologist says. “People want that option to buy. I think there’s going to be diverse approaches to fulfilling shopping this year.”

His advice: If you must shop this Thanksgiving holiday weekend, make use of those online opportunities.

“Stay indoors,” Sethi says. “You know, the NFL is continuing to play. There’ll be football on TV and other things to watch. Look for enticements to stay at home.”

 

 

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.