Pandemic pushes start of holiday shopping earlier than ever

Add last-minute holiday shopping to the list of time-honoured traditions being upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Retailers are kicking off the holiday season earlier than ever this year in hopes of avoiding big in-store crowds and shipping bottlenecks in November and December.

Retailers are starting holiday shopping earlier to avoid in-store crowds.

Stores like Best Buy, Macy’s, and Target typically offer their biggest Black Friday deals over Thanksgiving weekend, but now they’re starting them in October so people don’t crowd their stores later, creating a potentially dangerous situation during a pandemic.

And with more people expected to shop online, retailers are trying to avoid a rush of orders closer to Christmas, which could lead to late packages and more expensive shipping. Many had a hard time keeping up with the surge in buying when shoppers were locked down in their homes during the early days of the pandemic. Even Amazon, which has spent 25 years building warehouses and a delivery network, had to hire an additional 175,000 workers to meet demand.

Black Friday has long been the unofficial start to the US holiday season, though retailers have been pushing holiday shopping earlier for the last decade or so.

A worker wearing a protective mask and gloves carries Amazon.com Inc. boxes during a delivery in the Bronx borough of New York on March 26.

This year there’s more urgency. With the coronavirus still spreading in the US, stores have had to rethink their usual holiday plans. Thanksgiving Day doorbusters are cancelled. There will still be in-store sales the day after Thanksgiving, but companies are expected to try to steer many shoppers to their websites to avoid crowds and chaos.

“We’re preparing for a holiday season unlike any we’ve seen before,” said Target CEO Brian Cornell.

With many people out of work and even more uncertain about their economic futures, this isn’t expected to be a banner year for holiday sales. Shoppers will likely buy fewer gifts because they won’t be traveling to big family holiday gatherings. And they’ll be focused on gifts related to activities around the home, from workout wear to home goods and gaming consoles. One bright spot: People are spending less on experiences like travel and eating out, which have siphoned away holiday sales over the past few years.

The first big holiday push will come from Amazon, which is positioning its mid-October Prime Day as a kick-off to the holiday shopping season. This is the first time Amazon has held Prime Day so close to the holidays. It’s usually in July, but was postponed this year.

An employee shows customers various flat screen television options at a Best Buy Co. store in Downers Grove, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

That will put pressure on stores to offer deals around the same time, too. Target and Walmart have already said they will hold their own sales during the same time as Amazon’s. Best Buy will offer deals in October, earlier than it ever has.

Even with the early start to the season, holiday sales are expected to deliver smaller gains than in recent years. But no one really knows what’s going to happen.

There are already signs of early shopping. Kohl’s said shoppers have started searching for stocking stuffers and matching family pajamas on its website.

Retailers will try their hardest to woo procrastinators. In October, TV and online ads paid for by trade group National Retail Federation will push people to buy early.

Meanwhile, delivery company DHL is advising retailers to avoid holding big sales in December, since delivery could be delayed, said Kraig Foreman, the company’s president of e-commerce in North America, who works with nearly 30 retail chains.

Some are already seeing shipping delays.

Balsam Hill, which sells high-end artificial Christmas trees online, is warning shoppers on its website that shipping could take twice as long than the typical three to four days.

People seem to be in the holiday spirit already. Mac Harman, CEO of parent company Balsam Brands, said sales rose in July and continue to be so high that he’s worried the company could run out of faux trees by Black Friday.

″I don’t want to let customers down in a year where we need more joy than ever,” he said.