Strolling down Fifth Avenue, hot chocolate in one hand, wish list in another, the twinkling lights of the Saks display dancing in the corner of my eye. Bustling crowds in all directions carry bags brimming with gifts, holiday music and cheer fill the air. As snowflakes tickle my nose, I see an immaculately decorated tree illuminating Rockefeller Center. This scene, ingrained in my brain since my first visit to Manhattan, represents the epitome of holiday shopping to me.
Every year, brands large and small gear up for what accounts for the largest period of retail sales—the holiday season. Responsible for about 19 percent of annual retail across the last five years, November and December holiday sales play an immense role in retailers’ annual success (NRF). However, with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, retailers are preparing for a very different shopping experience.
With the necessity of social distancing and ongoing concern surrounding safety, retailers are shifting focus from in-store experiences to online sales. A major push to begin the holiday season earlier attempts to mitigate loss, as seen by Amazon’s recent Prime Day and Nordstrom rolling out holiday collections before Halloween. Mass crowds and one-day sales characteristic to Black Friday become concepts of the past, with Salesforce estimating as much as $6 billion of retail spending in the U.S typical to November’s Cyber Week is expected to be pulled into October (CNBC). Initial fears of reduced sales—resulting from layoffs and lack of income due to COVID-19—have been disproved early in the holiday season. Amazon Prime Day sales hit $10.4 billion this year, a 45.2% increase from the $7.16 billion pulled in during last year’s sales (CBS MoneyWatch).
The sky-rocketing of online sales, as predicted to occur over the coming months, represents a momentous shift in how retail is conducted. Unable to rely on the allure of in-store experiences and sales teams, larger brands are capitalizing on established consumer networks and advertising campaigns to ensure a successful holiday season. Shopping via online channels is expected to account for up to 30% of U.S. retail sales (Salesforce). Adaptation to this new era of post-pandemic retail appears feasible for large corporations, months of strategic planning minimizing expected losses. Macy’s chief executive, Jeff Gennette, believes that curbside pickup “is going to be a big secret weapon” this year (The New York Times). A focus of the retailer’s holiday planning, Gennette believes pickup services will be influential in tackling in-store limitations and retaining income in the absence of large Black Friday and 10 Days Before Christmas sales.
However, as online buyer behavior remains strong, an expected decline in offline sales by 6.6% translates to a major loss for small businesses (Forbes). Lack of resources and marketing capability available to large brands forces smaller businesses to get creative—relying entirely on curbside pickup and virtual shopping experiences to retain income. The capability of brands, large and small, during these unprecedented times to adapt to a transforming world of retail will represent the difference between success and failure this holiday season.