(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Like just about everything else in 2020, Black Friday is not going to be normal. The annual shopping bonanza, usually typified by scenes of long lines and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds hunting for discounts, will be more restrained amid the resurgent pandemic. But sparse crowds this time shouldn’t necessarily be cause for concern for retailers – especially given a late-cresting wave of optimism about how the broader holiday season will shake out.
Typically, retailers want their stores teeming with shoppers over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. This year? Not so much. To allow for social distancing, Walmart Inc., for example, has said its stores will allow 20% of their typical capacity on Black Friday, while Target Corp. will set limits on store by store. Most big chains will remain closed on Thanksgiving, a day that attracted 37.8 million in-store shoppers last year.
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But a quieter Black Friday shouldn’t sting too badly if retailers’ other seasonal strategies are working out according to their plans. They began pummeling shoppers with Black Friday-like discounts ahead of the usual schedule. If that worked, then it shouldn’t be too concerning if crowds are thin this weekend. Retailers have also invested in their e-commerce operations, often by launching or building awareness of curbside pickup options, to make up for some of the lost in-store sales.
Perhaps the best news for retailers ahead of this unusual Black Friday is the trail of recent breadcrumbs about consumers’ willingness to spend despite a raging pandemic and gloomy economy. Several retailers have delivered gangbusters earnings reports in recent days, including Best Buy Co., which said Tuesday that its 23% increase in third-quarter comparable sales was its best result on that measure in about 25 years. That followed similar blowout results from Target Corp. and Home Depot Inc. last week.
While there had been concern about how consumers would behave when their stimulus checks ran out and supplemental unemployment benefits ended, Walmart found its sales accelerated in September and October after a slower August. Home Depot executives said sales of Halloween items were strong, suggesting that, despite fewer parties, shoppers were looking to buy items to help them get in a holiday spirit. Lowe’s Cos. and Williams-Sonoma Inc. reported strong sales, a sign that the spending on nesting that was ushered in by the pandemic has continued in full force.
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Of course, those earnings reports are a snapshot in time for a period that for most retailers ended around Oct. 31. Since then, cases of Covid-19 have exploded, and the CDC has advised Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving. Several months ago, I thought such volatile and frightening conditions would send shoppers to the sidelines. My logic was: Why buy gifts for people you might not be able to see? Why buy new place settings for a Christmas dinner that may not happen? It turns out, that isn’t the calculus many shoppers are making, at least so far. Instead, based on consumer surveys and recent executive remarks, it appears that a sizeable group of consumers are plowing the money they would’ve spent on air travel, theater tickets and restaurant meals into skin cream, mattresses and all sorts of goods. You might say they’re engaging in retail therapy – soothing their pandemic sorrows with stuff.
On Monday, the National Retail Federation said it expects a 3.6% to 5.2% holiday season sales increase, which, especially at the upper end of the range, would constitute quite healthy growth. The trade group’s chief economist said in a press release the upbeat figure takes into account a “psychological factor” in which shoppers decide they “owe it to themselves” to splurge. The NRF’s outlook is sunnier than forecasts that came earlier in the fall, reflecting recent flashes of shopper resilience.
While retailers’ holiday season prospects look better than they did a couple of months ago, investors shouldn’t overdo it. (Sending shares of Macy’s Inc. up 15% on Monday, for example, smacked of getting carried away.) The worsening Covid-19 situation could bring new local restrictions that force a fresh round of store closings, or could cause people to voluntarily stay at home. Certain types of retailers, especially department stores, will find it harder than others to get a piece of the spending pie. And while foot traffic is vastly better than at its trough, it is nowhere near normal. These conditions could end up dealing a devastating blow to the malls and chains teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
But shoppers will be seeking some semblance of normalcy or indulgence, and retailers will benefit if they can provide it – whether in the form of a Nerf gun, a diamond necklace or a fancy Christmas roast.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.
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