Black Friday shopping could look very different this year

It’s evident that the retail industry has felt the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic

Doors bursting open at stores. Crowds spilling into the aisles. Elbows brushing up against others. Products flying off shelves. These are the hallmark images of Black Friday.

Well, they were.

That was before the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation. Now, the future of the biggest shopping discount day of the year is unknown.

YES, IT WILL STILL HAPPEN

For many, shopping on the day after Thanksgiving is a tradition. Historically, it’s also one of the best days of the year to save money on big-ticket items like electronics and appliances.

But with social distancing the norm, it’s hard to imagine shoppers camping out on the sidewalk next to one another this year ahead of Nov. 27. It’s even more difficult to picture stores overflowing with excited shoppers.

Retail experts believe Black Friday will still happen in 2020, despite the pandemic. But there’s no disputing the fact that it won’t be a traditional experience.

“Being there at the crack of dawn, waiting in lines, the hustle and bustle in the store — that’s probably not going to exist,” says Jane Boyd Thomas, a professor of marketing at Winthrop University in South Carolina who has done research about Black Friday.

SALES WILL SHIFT FURTHER ONLINE

For years, Black Friday has shifted to online channels, merging with Cyber Monday into a weekend-long event. The pandemic is set to further cement that transition.

After months of shelter-in-place orders, consumers have become more comfortable shopping from home. That will likely lead to an increase in online Black Friday purchases this year, says Dora Bock, associate professor of marketing at the Harbert College of Business at Auburn University in Alabama.

But the changes could go a step beyond that. COVID-19 has illuminated failings in the supply chain, and Thomas believes many consumers will opt for contactless curbside pickup options (as opposed to shipping to their home) to guarantee that the items they’re buying online are actually available — and not out of stock.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean stores will be ghost towns.

“They want something normal,” Thomas says of some shoppers. “I do think that will drive people to go in to see the lights, to see the trees — all the stuff that goes with that experience.”

DOORBUSTERS COULD BE DEEP

Even though the experience will look different, Black Friday discounts might be particularly relevant this year, especially as millions of Americans have faced unemployment and other financial hardships in 2020.

While consumers have largely focused on purchasing essential items during the pandemic, Bock anticipates competitive prices on discretionary products like apparel and jewelry.

Consumers might also have an appetite for traditional Black Friday categories, such as computers. Thomas expects these discounts will be appealing, considering how critical laptops have become as Americans work, learn and interact virtually from home.

“There’s a large number of consumers that look forward to Black Friday because it provides them a sense of excitement,” Bock says. “People feel good when they get a good deal.”

RETAILERS STILL HAVE SOME PLANNING TO DO

There are a number of unanswered questions about how Black Friday will look. After all, retailers are still figuring out how to market the holiday shopping season.

One possibility? Black Friday may become an extended period, rather than a single day of sales, says Michael Brown, a partner in the consumer practice of Kearney, a global strategy and management consultant.

“I’m expecting that Black Friday as we have grown to know it cannot exist in a COVID world,” Brown says.

“I think we have to really not think about Black Friday and think more about when the launch of the holiday season will begin. I think that has to be pulled up by retailers as early as November 1,” he says.

Throughout the holiday season, stores will have to perform a delicate dance. Shopping may become just as much about public health as it is about discounts.

Retailers have merchandise to sell, but promoting in-store only specials could be seen as insensitive by shoppers with preexisting medical conditions, Bock points out.

“I think it’s really going to be a balancing act for retailers to encourage sales, encourage people to buy, encourage trust and promote spending — but promote it in a way that shows they care for their customers’ well-being,” Bock says.

There’s one more wild card, Brown says. What type of Black Friday shopping environment will state and local governments allow? Time will tell.

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This article was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Courtney Jespersen is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: courtney@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @courtneynerd.

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