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How Will COVID Affect Black Friday Sales? Stores 'Significantly Scaling Back,' Says Expert

(CBS Detroit) -- COVID-19 will have a huge effect on Black Friday this year, much as it has on everything else. Some of those effects can already be seen in the expanded holiday shopping season, which has been going on since mid-October. Other effects will become more evident over the long Thanksgiving weekend.

At one time, Black Friday, the Friday after Thanksgiving, marked the beginning of the holiday shopping season. The name is derived from the day retailers see their balance sheets turn from red to black. According to Jie Zhang, Professor of Marketing and Retail Management at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, "the legend was that retailers work their heads off for much of the year, and it's only the beginning of the holiday shopping season, that is, the Friday after Thanksgiving, that they turn black. So they turn red to black, meaning that this is first day they're going to start to making profits. Obviously, it's by no means precise."

The holiday shopping season has been expanding for awhile. In recent years, the deals reserved for Black Friday and beyond have been showing up earlier in November. And this year, holiday shopping seemed to be in full swing before Halloween. We can thank Amazon for that.

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"Amazon essentially kicked off the holiday shopping season with their Prime Day, moved to October 13 and 14th," says Zhang. "And that, essentially, is like an unofficial kickoff of this year's holiday shopping season. Not only Amazon, but several major retailers offered their own deals on exactly the same day or around the same time. And shortly after, many other retailers followed suit. So they started to offer holiday deals or, as they call them, Black Friday deals, or Black Friday-like deals, even before Halloween."

The hard push to expand the holiday shopping season makes a lot of sense. Prime Day previously helped kick off the back-to-school shopping season in late July. But there was a lot of uncertainty then about what form schooling would take. Would kids actually return to school? The school year so far has been a mix of in-school and remote learning, with more and more kids going fully remote as the pandemic continues.

Lately, COVID case numbers have been breaking records seemingly daily. Much of the country remains largely homebound, or at least minimizes their exposure to the outside world as much as possible. That means less shopping in stores and more shopping online. This is another long-term trend -- retail moving from in-store to online -- that COVID has accelerated. But how will it play out on the biggest shopping day of the year?

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For many, the experience of Black Friday shopping is a high point of the holiday season. "Many consumers have a family tradition of going out shopping on Black Friday, for the fun, for the excitement and for the social experience," says Zhang. "But, with a pandemic surging in the country and around the world, and the concern for safety and health remain heightened in consumers' minds, many of those consumers will scale back and will choose to stay at home, or do online shopping instead of going to stores. Certainly that's one thing that will make this coming Friday very different from what we have seen in the past."

"Store-based retailers or retailers with a primary focus in the brick-and-mortar operations are not just throwing the towel and giving up the fight," Zhang continues. "They're doing all that they can to try to at least attract some shoppers to the store."

But what physical stores can do to attract customers is severely limited by the ongoing COVID crisis. "They are significantly scaling back," says Zhang. "For example, in shopping malls, we know that every year a lot of shopping malls host meeting Santa, taking pictures with Santa, as a way to draw families into the shopping mall. And, of course, that traffic will spill into their retail tenants. And this year, some shopping malls have decided to cancel it. Others are offering virtual events, like a virtual meeting with Santa."

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A virtual meeting, by definition, isn't in-person, and doesn't amount to foot traffic in stores. "Nonetheless, they're still doing some of that, combined with increased offering of order online and pickup in store or curbside pickup," Zhang continues. "And this is one way to, first of all to meet the surging online demand. And secondly, to try to divert some of the traffic into the store, even if just briefly."

For those shoppers who do show up, they'll probably find a somewhat more muted experience than they're used to. According to Zhang, "store retailers would have to enhance their safety and sanitation measures, crowd control, making sure that employees and customers maintain good distance... essentially the common-sense measures that we have been seeing from the beginning of the pandemic. And I think the public has become more educated and aware of the need -- and the business as well -- the need to practice good safety measures."

This all assumes that stores and malls are allowed to remain open in the face of spiking numbers of COVID cases. On Tuesday, the country saw 1,707 deaths, the highest total in six months. The national death total has surpassed 250,000, and most states have seen cases rise this week. Parts of the country could be headed toward another lockdown situation, which would close non-essential stores, like those where people do their holiday shopping.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, shopping malls were among the first type of facilities to be shut down and have been kept shut down for the longest time," Zhang points out. "So we don't know how that aspect will develop and whether some shopping malls won't even be able to stay open. That, obviously, will impact all the stores located in shopping malls."

While Black Friday this year, if it happens, won't carry the spirit of the season as it has in past years, the experience isn't gone forever. A widely administered vaccine would, in theory, end the pandemic. If that happens in time for the next holiday shopping season, Black Friday could make a comeback.

"Suppose the pandemic is over, vaccines are widely available, people are not concerned about safety and health," Zhang speculates. "I think Black Friday-type of event, in-store events will resume, because, after all, there are some big social components to shopping. And many people just really enjoy the social experience involved with shopping, especially on special occasions like Black Friday. As I said, many shoppers actually have that family tradition, not necessarily to grab the best deals, but just that rush, that excitement and to enjoy that together with their loved ones."

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