“Clarity,” he said, “has become really important.”
The pandemic has reshaped the most important shopping season of the year, forcing retailers to rethink inventory, store layouts and when, even how, they offer their deepest discounts. Many have spent months trying to accommodate a boom in online shopping, but Black Friday weekend requires they also confront their approach to what historically is the busiest stretch of the year for in-store shopping.
Target is allowing shoppers to circumvent front-door lines by reservation, while Walmart has created one-way aisles that lead to some of its most coveted Black Friday deals. There are new rules regarding masks, maximum occupancies and temperature checks. And retailers are grappling with larger challenges too, including an ongoing recession, historically high unemployment, and supply chain challenges that could further damp what is projected to be a tepid shopping season, with sales expected to grow 1 to 1.5 percent, according to consulting firm Deloitte.
The stakes are especially high: More than a dozen major retailers have been tipped into bankruptcy since the pandemic, and experts say they expect a second wave of filings early next year. Many have staked their hopes of survival on the last weeks of the year, in hopes that consumers will be willing to open their wallets more freely than they have since the pandemic forced much of the country to shut down in March.
“We still don’t have a handle on how big of a recession we’re in and how much further we may go,” said Scott Stuart, chief executive of the Turnaround Management Association, a Chicago-based organization that represents restructuring professionals. “This holiday season is that much more important to retailers because of the weightiness of the pandemic. They are hoping to make up for lost time.”
Message is clear: ‘Shop early’
L.L. Bean set up its holiday merchandise in stores earlier than ever, in October, and in larger quantities than usual. Fleece, flannel and fuzzy footwear are expected to be in high demand, executives said, and there won’t be much time to keep replenishing shelves.
“The world is crazy and complex around us: Covid plus election plus cold weather plus darkness is heavy,” said Stephen Smith, chief executive of the Maine-based retailer known for its outdoor apparel.
Add to that a trucking shortage and widespread concern of shipping delays, and he says the company’s message to consumers is unequivocal: “Shop early.”
The company sprang into action in the early days of the pandemic, canceling $80 million worth of fall and winter merchandise, as it tried to figure out what customers might want. It also turned its boot production facility into a mask-sewing operation, where employees churned out 10,000 face masks a day for first responders using fabric originally destined to line dog beds.
By April, customers were beginning to spend again, mostly on items to spruce up their homes and backyards. Hammock receipts grew 150 percent, while sales of stand-up paddleboards doubled and demand for bikes grew fivefold. The company began placing fall and winter orders again, but for items it hadn’t originally intended to stock, such as flannel shirts, snow boots, puffer jackets and kids’ boots.
“We are still airfreighting in some items that we have been chasing, like slippers that will continue to be replenished as needed,” Smith said. “But for the most part, our stores are being stocked as full as possible.”
Carter’s is taking a decidedly different approach. It is offering fewer styles this year, particularly in stores. Executives canceled as many orders as they could early in the pandemic, and packed away what they couldn’t for next year.
“We had to make decisions in April about what we’re going to do for the holidays and decided to take a prudent approach,” Lynch said.
But, he said, executives were surprised to find that consumers began searching for “holiday” and “Christmas” items as early as July. Carter’s went all-in on festive apparel the first week of October, in hopes of winning over families who wanted to spruce up for holiday portraits.
“We realized that if people are going to dress up at all, it’s going to be to take that one picture for their Christmas cards,” said Jeff Jenkins, the company’s executive vice president of global marketing. “They aren’t getting dressed up for Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner, or to go visit their family, but they want to have that one moment of normalcy.
After that, though, “it’s all about the warm and cozy, with jammies front and center,” he said.
Gone are the days of leisurely browsing, says Ryan Turf, president of home furnishing brand CB2. These days, shoppers come in with a purpose.
“When people come into our stores, they either want to test something out, get advice, or have products ready to go,” he said. “They’re looking for simplicity and convenience.”
As a result, he said, the company is bundling holiday decor this year so shoppers can quickly grab everything they need to decorate a mantle or a Christmas tree without having to pick out individual ornaments, candles and marble angels. It is also increasing the number of employees devoted to virtual design appointments and contactless pickups at its stores.
The pandemic also has created challenges for retailers that have relied on novel experiences, such as cooking classes, book signings and martinis in the shoe department, to attract customers.
Build-A-Bear stores, where customers can create their own stuffed animals, have typically been popular destinations for birthdays, celebrations and special occasions. But much of the hands-on experience has gotten a makeover in recent months.
In-store birthday parties have been canceled indefinitely and there are fewer face-to-face interactions. Staffers, called “bear builders,” wear custom masks printed with bear mouths. (The company has also started selling masks for stuffed animals, starting at $4.) The “heart ceremony,” in which the customer makes a wish and places a heart inside their stuffed animal, now takes place from afar: The child sets the toy on a pedestal and steps into a box, while the employee gets the bear and stuffs and sews it shut, said chief executive Sharon Price John. The emphasis, she said, is on maintaining a six-foot distance — or, as the store’s signs say, the length of “8 furry friends lined up.”
“We had to close all of our stores on March, and then the question was: What can we do to make this terrible situation better?” John said. “We started almost immediately rethinking the store experience and shifting our efforts to e-commerce.”
Before the pandemic, the company, which has typically been based in shopping malls, had been rapidly opening stores on cruise ships and in airports and family-friendly resorts as a way to reach families in search of entertainment. But the pandemic brought almost all of that business to a screeching halt in March, and John says some of those locations are still closed. As a result, it has upgraded its website and offers a number of online subscription boxes, Internet-first toy releases and other virtual events to keep customers engaged.
“Our company is as much about the memories that are being made as they are about the actual Build-A-Bear,” she said. “But we’ve realized that the pandemic doesn’t stop the need for celebrate a kid’s birthday or the holidays, or to send something to grandma.