With only weeks out before what is likely to be an unusual Halloween with local and national social distancing orders still in place, retailers are already looking ahead in hopes that the holiday shopping season will not be as scary as the first nine months of the year.

And a big step to the U.S. economy getting back on track – ahead of the nation’s efforts to find a COVID-19 vaccine – could be a strong showing in the all-important holiday season nearly a month ahead of the traditional post-Thanksgiving through Christmas shopping campaign.

In anticipation of early pre- and post-Halloween holiday shopping starts already announced by retail giants Walmart, Amazon and Target, the National Retail Federation on Sept. 29 launched a nationwide consumer education campaign called “New Holiday Traditions” to encourage consumers to shop safe and shop early amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is going to be a historic holiday season and while some memorable traditions may change, the tradition of retailers supporting their customers and their communities is stronger than ever. That is why we encourage consumers to adopt two new traditions this year – shop safe and shop early – so we can all celebrate a happy and healthy holiday,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. “Retailers are prepared for an early start to the shopping season, offering discounts earlier to ensure consumers can find the gifts they want, in stock at the price they want to pay, delivered at the time they want to receive them.”

As noted by NRF, which represents retailers of all sizes and categories from Walmart and Amazon to local main street merchants, said late November is historically the most popular month to start holiday shopping. Despite concerns related to the coronavirus, NRF said 43% of holiday shoppers surveyed this year say in early November to start buying for the season, and a majority (59%) plan to shift more of their shopping online compared with last year, according to NRF’s annual consumer holiday survey.

“In a year that has been full of uncertainty, we encourage consumers to avoid the last-minute stresses of the holiday season like long lines and shipping delays. Retailers are ready with inventory and sales, and there’s no reason to wait until Thanksgiving weekend to kick off your gift shopping,” Shay said.

NRF’s “New Holiday Traditions” campaign will include advertising across digital and social media, radio and Connected TV that will air from October through mid-November in target markets across the country. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, retail remains the nation’s largest private-sector employer, contributing $3.9 trillion to annual GDP and supporting one in four U.S. job or 52 million workers.

In its effort to jumpstart the early holiday shopping season, Amazon this weekend began its annual Prime Day event on Oct. 13-14 to offer its premium customers access to over one million deals at steep discounts on popular categories, like tech, electronics, digital and mobile devices, home, kitchen, clothing, shoes, wellness, and more.

“In the midst of an unprecedented year, we’re committed to making this the most successful Prime Day ever for our small businesses and excited for Prime members worldwide to discover new ways to support local entrepreneurs and save big on everything they need and love,” said Jeff Wilke, Amazon CEO Worldwide Consumer. “This year’s Prime Day is the perfect opportunity for Prime members to get their holiday shopping done early from the comfort of their homes – and to have more time to spend with their families and friends throughout the season.”

Walmart, Amazon and Target push early ‘Black Friday’ online events

Amazon’s Prime Day is traditional held in July but was postponed this year as the West Coast remote seller rearranged its workforce to handle the crush of COVID-19 related sales after all 50 states sideline or partially shut down local brick-and-mortal retailers with social distancing and shelter-in-place orders.

Earlier this summer, the Seattle-based online retail giant announced that it is hiring 100,000 new jobs are primarily in delivery, logistics and grocery shopping roles. Openings include full- and part-time positions in Amazon warehouses, Prime Now and Whole Foods locations. Amazon’s global workforce is now nearing the 900,000 mark, second only to Arkansas rival Walmart’s 2.2 million associates working across U.S. and international operations.

Amazon also announced plans in July to build a new 825,000 square-foot fulfillment facility that will create over 1,000 new full-time jobs. Amazon is also planning a new 85,000 square-foot delivery station, anticipated to launch in late 2020. Besides the new fulfillment center, Amazon is also planning a new 85,000 square-foot delivery station, which power the last mile of Amazon’s order fulfillment process.

The delivery station will also create hundreds of permanent, full-time and part-time jobs, in addition to offering entrepreneurs and independent contractors the opportunity to build their own small business delivering Amazon packages, company officials said. In late 2018, the Seattle-based ecommerce giant also opened distribution center in North Little Rock that has about 100 employees.

Not to be outdone, Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart Stores Inc. Walmart announced last month that it is also adapting to meet the evolving needs of its customers this holiday season. Walmart said on Oct. 13 that it is revamping its popular Black Friday savings event an entirely new way to help provide a safer and more convenient shopping experience.

“Customers trust Walmart to deliver an amazing Black Friday year after year. Although this year’s event looks different, our commitment to what our customers depend on us for – the absolute best prices of the season on hot gifts from top brands – hasn’t changed,” said Scott McCall, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer for Walmart U.S.

This year, Walmart said it will spread out its Black Friday savings this year from one single day to three events to bring customers “Black Friday Deals for Days.” This reinvented Black Friday experience will offer customers the retailer’s best prices of the season on the most sought-after items on 2020 holiday wish lists during three separate savings events across the month of November.

Also, each savings event will begin online at Walmart.com and continue in Walmart stores. Customers of the world’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer will have the option to pick up their online Black Friday order through Walmart’s contact-free curbside pickup service. To kick-off its earlier shopping extravaganza, the Arkansas-based retail giant will hold its Walmart’s “Black Friday Deals for Days” event well ahead of Thanksgiving first online on Nov. 4 and then in stores Nov. 7.

That first online and in-store holiday shopping festival that will include 42-inch digital TVs for $88 and towel sets for $5 will be followed up by two other similar events on Nov. 11 and on the traditional Black Friday day, held on the weekend after Thanksgiving Day on Nov. 24.

“We’ve been very thoughtful as we planned this year’s event. 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,” added McCall.

The world’s largest retailer said to help with the safety of customers and company associates, all Walmart stores will open at 5 a.m. local time on Black Friday in-store event days. Customers will form a single, straight line to enter the store. Associates will hand out sanitized shopping carts to customers to help with social distancing, and Health Ambassadors will be placed at entrances to greet customers and remind them to put on a mask.

During these in-store Black Friday events, Walmart will also meter customers into the store to help reduce congestion and promote social distancing inside stores. Customers will be directed to shop down the right-hand side of aisles to be able to easily – and safely – select the Black Friday items they are interested in purchasing.

Retail rival Target also introduced a new approach to the upcoming holiday shopping season in late September by upgrading its staffing plans to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at its 1,900 local store and 43 distribution centers. Those plans included pushing more staffing resources for toward contactless services and safety and ramping up local hiring with an extra boost in coronavirus pay and benefits.

Like Amazon, Target kicked its holiday season with the return of Target Deal Days on Oct. 13 and 14, offering Black Friday pricing on over a million deals through the entire month of November. Nearly all Target deals are via contactless drive-up and order pickup, company officials said, while some select deals have been available on Target.com since Oct. 5.

“This year, in a holiday season unlike any other, we know it’s more important than ever for our guests to get great deals in a convenient and safe shopping environment,” said Christina Hennington, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer, Target. “By kicking off our holiday deals earlier than ever, offering Black Friday pricing throughout the full month of November and extending our Price Match Guarantee, we’re letting guests know they don’t need to wait or face the crowds to get the best deals, all with no membership fees required.”

But the Big Three retailers will not be the only online and brick-and-mortar to kick off the holiday shopping season early this year. In the past two weeks, more than a dozen national department store chains and operators and online retailers have also announced similar early holiday sales programs, including Kohl’s, JC Penney, Overstock.com, Bed Bath & Beyond and William-Sonoma.

For all concerned, there is clear evidence that the pandemic has impacted both typical commerce models and consumers’ spending habits. New research by Boise, Idaho-based Kount, a national fraud protection and prevention firm, shows that most mid-to-large online and ecommerce retailers believe they will need to catch up on sales in order to recover from the economic downturn.

Of businesses engaged in digital commerce, 84% said that compared to last year, the upcoming holiday season is critical to their business for recovery or survival, with nearly half of respondents saying they will need to catch up on sales in order to recover from the economic downturn. In addition, more than half of business respondents said their company does not anticipate in-store sales volumes to return to pre-COVID levels within the foreseeable future, even after the pandemic subsides. On the other hand, nearly three in four retailers expect higher digital sales than in 2019.

“‘Unprecedented’ may be said a lot this year, but this upcoming holiday shopping season truly brings unknowns. Businesses are faced with high stakes and the need to make up for lost revenue, and they must also be scaling and protecting digital commerce,” said Kount CEO Brad Wiskirchen. “Now is the time to be reviewing, analyzing and implementing the resources needed to address the accelerated shift to ecommerce, which is sure to continue beyond this season.”

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