Stu Atkins CSUF marketing lecturer

Stu Atkins

Black Friday, the annual shopping holiday that kicks off the Christmas spending season, has been changing in recent years with a greater online focus. But for months, retailers have been anticipating an experience unlike any other for 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic keeps the traditional droves of shoppers away from stores, and the stay-at-home economy brings different purchasing habits.

“Black Friday is not over for good, but this year is going to be weird, longer and different,” says Stu Atkins, founder of Orange-based digital marketing agency, Atkins Marketing Solutions and a marketing lecturer at Cal State Fullerton. “This shopping environment is unprecedented. These challenges don’t happen every year or every decade. We’re in a once-every-100-years pandemic, and you’re inserting that pandemic environment in a digital, online and brick-and-mortar retail environment.”

At a time in which retail was already in flux, Atkins sees the pandemic-marred holiday shopping season as a mix of tragedy and interesting innovation – and uncharted territory for the industry.

“Both brick-and-mortar and online retailers have had to scramble and adjust and reconfigure Black Friday,” he says.

According to a report by Insider Intelligence, U.S. retail sales are expected to increase 0.9% to just over $1 trillion, though brick-and-mortar sales will decline 4.7%, and ecommerce will jump 35.8% to a record 18.8% of total sales.

But uncertainty reigns, making this season the greatest unknown in the retail world since at least the Great Recession.

Black Friday Becomes Black Quarter

Unlike the traditional day-after-Thanksgiving kickoff, Atkins notes Black Friday has been extended over a quarter, beginning in October and continuing to December.

“Shoppers are anxious about shopping in the store,” says Atkins. “The Amazons of the world have been very important, but people are also more apt to order from traditional retailers online. Fortunately, retailers have had time to prepare.”

In the past, Atkins has worked for companies that sold nationwide to Target and Best Buy, and he recalls industry planning starts for Black Friday by at least May and June. Thankfully, the pandemic was already in place by then, giving just enough time for major retailers to adjust. But it’s not been easy, considering the uncertainty.

“They saw the writing on the wall and what they needed to do to adjust. They put plans in place in early- to mid-summer, but things have been changing all the time,” he says. “They have been adapting on a real-time basis.”

He notes Walmart’s Black Friday Deals for Days promotion, which includes health ambassadors to control crowd capacity and traffic flow, coupled with the event spread out over multiple time periods. Costco has four separate Black Friday specials, stretching from Nov. 5 to Nov. 30, both online and in-store. And there’s an emphasis on curbside pickup, which Walmart was advocating even before COVID-19.

“Curbside began as a convenience factor, but now it’s a necessity factor,” he says.

After Christmas, Atkins anticipates longer New Year’s sales than ever before, further extending the 2020 season beyond previous timeframes.

Divining Black Friday 2021 – And Beyond

Even as retailers hope to score profits despite the crises of 2020, many industry leaders and consumers alike are wondering what Black Friday will be like in 2021.

Atkins says it’s dependent on the trajectory of COVID-19 in each state and city by that time, and the impact of vaccines that are expected to be distributed by then.

“I think the Black Friday model, whether COVID clears up or not, is evolving from what the retailers are learning from this experience,” he says. “Retailers will learn from the calendar expansion and the promotions they’ve run in 2020. It may change the model in a good way and consumers will benefit from it being expanded and not shopping all at once. And we may see some hybrid Black Fridays created in the future that may create permanent changes even if COVID leaves.”

Early on in the pandemic, some experts predicted a post-COVID-19 revival of brick-and-mortar retail, as restricted consumers exult in their newfound freedoms after pandemic restrictions end. Atkins believes such a pushback to the digital world may be in the offing.

“As important as digital marketing and social media is, the human connection should never be underestimated. We’re human, and we like to touch and feel the products we are going to buy despite the convenience of online shopping,” says Atkins. “Perhaps we will see an increase in brick-and-mortar shopping as people get tired of sitting in their homes and want to get out to the mall again.”

But Atkins notes there will be headwinds to a return to physical stores, since many have closed, and smaller retailers without large financial backing have been particularly hard hit. Additionally, it will take time for entrepreneurs to consider traditional retailing ventures again.

“Small businesses are the powerhouse of our economy. Those that survive will thrive, but many businesses may not get through this, which is sad,” says Atkins.

Advice to Navigating the 2020 Shopping Season

If you’re shopping in 2020, Atkins encourages buying quickly, anticipating shortages of hot items.

“If you’re shopping online, my tip would be get it into the shopping cart, buy it and get out as soon as possible before it’s out of stock,” he says. “The demand will be heavy and people are buying early. Don’t hang around and decide for too long.”

Still, Atkins anticipates revenue numbers will be down somewhat considering so many consumers were laid off or put on furlough, though this might be countered somewhat by the increase in disposable income that those with jobs have experienced due to reduced fuel and automotive expenses.

If you’re headed to the physical stores with kids, Atkins says you may see Santa Claus, but in a socially distant drive-thru format.

“We won’t see kids on Santa’s lap this year, but the creative Santa out in the parking lot will still say hello from a safe six-foot or more distance,” he says. “Santa will have to adjust this year, and the creativity will be important. The beard may not be as hip or as cool as in the past, as Santa will wear a mask.”

Above all, 2020 will be a major learning experience – for both shoppers and retailers – that will inform both in the future.

“I’m a positive individual, and if we try to see the good in all of this in the long run, we’ll look back and see that we tragically lost many people, but we’ve learned how large corporations and small businesses alike can adjust and make a better experience for both brick-and-mortar and online shoppers,” says Atkins. “Our attitude will really shape the COVID and post-COVID environment. Plus, this experience has taught us that the most important thing retailers can give customers is that we care about them. This season, let’s remember what’s really important in life. Money can buy products, but not time and family.”