What happens to Black Friday crowds in a pandemic?

Even before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything, well, everything, Black Friday was already on its last legs. The post-Thanksgiving shopping vacation continued to creep earlier and earlier. Retailers began opening their stores before dawn on Friday and then at midnight, encouraging shoppers to line up for the doors before they even finished digesting their turkey and mashed potatoes. Eventually, they threw caution to the wind and started opening on Thursday afternoon, long before most people had a chance to dine.

This year, thanks to the seemingly endless pandemic, Black Friday has become even more nebulous, with major retailers emphasizing online shopping and offering month-long sales to keep the crowds at bay. And for good reason: a Deloitte survey found that more than half of shoppers surveyed are anxious to shop in-store during the holiday season, not only on Black Friday, but also in the lead-up to the winter break. Another survey, conducted by Accenture, found that 61% of respondents plan to limit their shopping time in-store, not only to keep them safe, but also to keep essential workers safe.

Nothing says “super spreader event” like a crowd of hundreds of people – many of whom have just finished having a long meal indoors with friends or relatives who may or may not have traveled across the country – gathered in front of a shop. Traditional Black Friday would not only be dangerous for shoppers; it would also be dangerous for the employees of the store, who already have to work long hours during the holidays.

In order to avoid this worst-case scenario, many large retailers are changing the structure of their Black Friday sales, extending them for weeks, and encouraging online shopping. Walmart, for example, is spreading sales over three weeks. The retailer had an online sale on November 4 followed by an in-person sale on November 7, an online sale on November 11 followed by an in-person sale three days later, and has a final online sale on the 25th. November, with its last person’s sale online taking place on Black Friday proper. Spreading sales over three weeks “will be safer and more manageable for our customers and associates,” Scott McCall, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer for Walmart, said in a press release.

For each of the three in-person sales, customers are asked to wait in a single queue outside the store. Employees – including a designated “health ambassador” – will greet customers, ask them to put on masks, and let them enter the store in batches. Stores will be maintained at 20% of capacity to facilitate physical distancing, according to the Associated press. Customers will receive disinfected caddies.

Target, arguably Walmart’s biggest competitor, takes a similar approach. The retailer makes several one-week sales during the month of November. Like Walmart, Target will limit the number of customers who can be in a given store at a time, although those limits won’t be clear. When asked if stores will be operating at limited capacity, a spokesperson told The Goods that “store capacities represent a distance of six feet into our stores and key areas like our screening lanes. We also continue to follow the mandates of local governments. ”

Target encourages customers to reserve seats online in advance and said it would allow customers to check online if there is a line at their local store before heading out. Rather than waiting in a physical line, customers will receive a message telling them when it is their turn to enter the store, possibly to allow people to wait in their cars or at home rather than in groups outside the store.

Several retailers are also expanding curbside pickup to include sale items, another tactic to encourage customers to buy online rather than in-store. Target, Walmart, Best Buy, and Macy’s are all developing curbside pickup for this reason. Macy’s and Best Buy will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, reminiscent of a time when Black Friday was a one-day event rather than a weekend. That said, both retailers extended their sales throughout the month. Although they may be closed on Thanksgiving Day, Best Buy and Macy’s had sales in November. JCPenney, another big Black Friday retailer, is running an eight-day sale.

As mainstream retailers try to encourage customers to shop online, Amazon is playing its offerings in person. This may seem counterintuitive, given Amazon’s business model focused on delivery, but according to RetailDive, the digital retailer is also focusing on alternatives to home delivery. Having packages delivered may be safer, but given the increase in online shopping, it could also cause delays or even lost orders. For this reason, Amazon is emphasizing its “alternative delivery locations” for customers “in more than 900 cities and towns across the United States”. Although Amazon is a primarily online retailer, it has 4-star Amazon stores, Amazon bookstores, and delivery centers. inside select Whole Foods locations.

Retailers largely frame their pandemic-era Black Friday plans as a way to protect customers and encourage them to feel safe, but there’s also the issue of worker safety. Unlike shoppers, who have the option of picking up their items at the door or receiving a text message when it’s their turn to shop, retail employees will still have to do what they did at the end of the day. the pandemic: greet customers, help them find what they’re looking for, call them and hope they won’t be exposed to the virus.

During the spring coronavirus outbreak, many retailers offered their workers a risk premium. As the The New York Times recently reported, most major retailers have since discontinued. Walmart, for example, offered cash bonuses to workers but never increased their wages. However, a few companies still offer extra pay: A spokesperson for JCPenney told The Goods the brand still offers a risk premium to its workers.

Almost all of the major retailers have said they will require all customers and employees to wear face masks when in stores, a particularly important precaution during crowded sales. However, the application of the masks will be left to employees or hourly managers, who may have little recourse when dealing with hostile customers. In October, the Times reported that The National Retail Federation has entered into a new partnership with the Crisis Prevention Institute to teach workers how to prevent and defuse disputes with shoppers who refuse to wear masks or follow other safety measures.

“This is another opportunity for our retailers to say, ‘Our people are trained. If there is an incident, they will take care of it and you will be safe shopping, ”Bill Thorne, executive director of the National Retail Federation, told The Times.

But earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned stores not to do this precisely. In August, the health agency told retailers that their workers should refrain from arguing with anti-masks because they could turn violent. It’s essentially a choice between asking employees to be potentially exposed to the coronavirus and asking them to be potentially exposed to the coronavirus. and a violent attack.

Ultimately, this year’s Black Friday is a balance between keeping customers safe, keeping workers safe and, perhaps more importantly, for retailers, dealing with the ongoing situation. logistical and financial side effects of a pandemic that does not seem to have an end in sight.