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Empty Parking Lots and Few Lines at Stores: How Black Friday 2020 Is Already Different From Years Past

Black Friday is already shaping up to be very different from past years.

Instead of jam-packed parking lots and long lines at registers, many retailers have sought to temper holiday congestion at stores as the country experiences another surge in COVID-19 cases. Some have opted to open their doors later than usual or staggered their deals over the course of days, while others have turned to digital channels starting early this month to offer discounts that are ordinarily reserved for brick-and-mortar shopping.

“With health restrictions in place in many areas of the country and retailers safeguarding their customers and employees by enforcing capacity limitations, slower foot traffic on Black Friday was not only expected — it was planned,” Sarah Engel, January Digital’s CMO and chief people officer, told FN. “With very few exceptions this year, store-only doorbuster sales of years past were replaced with sales available over a span of days in all shopping channels.”

Big-box giants like Walmart and Target, for example, started offering deals earlier than ever — undoubtedly influenced by rival Amazon’s Prime Day event, which occurred in the pre-holiday month of mid-October instead of its usual date in July. Department stores like Nordstrom and Kohl’s, on the other hand, hosted their own days of limited-time savings for select items and product categories. Specialty retailer Old Navy and athletic-outdoor chain Dick’s Sporting Goods also extended their markdowns to last days instead of the usual 24 hours.

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“Black Friday might just turn into a lunchtime activity instead of an early morning rush,” NPD’s chief industry advisor of retail, Marshal Cohen, wrote in a tweet. He shared that he has observed “short lines at registers” as well as “small crowds, if you can call them that,” adding that Black Friday shoppers are heading out “with specific bargains in mind.”

The smaller and subdued scenes playing out across the country come as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to warn the public of the risks of congregating at stores amid the coronavirus pandemic. The agency previously issued guidance on its website that included “shopping in crowded stores” as one of the holidays’ “higher risk activities,” which also consists of attending crowded parades and large indoor gatherings with people from outside one’s household.

That’s not to say some shoppers didn’t head out early to score some of the best prices of the year: At the Foot Locker store in New York City’s Herald Square, dozens of people were spotted lining up well before dawn, while early-morning shoppers were photographed hovering outside the Macy’s outpost at the Queens Center Mall.

Still, digital — not physical — is expected to be the big beneficiary this holiday season: According to a survey from Salesforce, retailers’ decisions to cut back business hours and consumers’ anxieties about visiting stores puts Black Friday on track to be the biggest digital shopping holiday for the fourth consecutive year. The software behemoth predicted that online sales will reach $56.5 billion around the world and $11.9 billion in the U.S. alone.

“With no midnight doorbusters and shoppers staying home for the holidays, it’s not surprising to see that Thanksgiving digital sales grew a healthy 27% globally year over year,” said Salesforce VP of strategy and insights Rob Garf. “We are seeing a shopping surge during Cyber Week that will challenge logistical capabilities of many retailers. The winners and losers this holiday season will be defined by shipping and their ability to get gifts to the doorstep for the remainder of the holiday season.”

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