It’s beginning to look a lot like …
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Last November, I wrote about Black Friday creep, in which the term “Black Friday” becomes detached from its original meaning — one-day sales on the day after Thanksgiving — to refer to any invitation to bargain shop in the month of November. Like so many preexisting economic trends, this one has been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s hard to see how a traditional Black Friday doorbuster sale could be compliant with social distancing. So this year, with consumers bored at home and retailers wanting to spread out the shopping crowds, Black Friday has crept into October.
The kickoff began with Amazon Prime Day, the big annual sale that was delayed from July and is actually two days (today and tomorrow). Other retailers have brought their November sales forward to coincide with Prime Day, launching holiday-deal pricing in October in an effort to spread out shopper traffic and discourage sale crowds. Target’s Deal Days run concurrently with Prime Day, while Walmart’s the Big Save launched two days earlier, on Sunday, and will run through Thursday.
Retailers have been taking steps to assure shoppers that they won’t regret buying early. Best Buy has put select items on sale concurrent with Prime Day with a promise that if the price is lowered before Black Friday, the company will automatically reimburse customers the difference. And starting in November, Target will extend its usual price-match guarantee, offering to match prices not just for 14 days after purchase but through the holiday season, so customers will be able to shop without worrying that prices may fall as it gets closer to Christmas.
Retailers can see business advantages besides pandemic safety from encouraging earlier and more spread-out shopping. An early start to the holiday buying season gets customers to lock in their shopping, lest they wait and then decide they’re worried about their finances. A longer holiday-shopping season also puts less strain on resources throughout the supply chain; stores won’t need the same surge of seasonal holiday staff, and shippers will move a more even flow of packages instead of a huge crush right as we approach the holidays.
This is a strange economic environment for consumers. Unusually for a recession, American household balance sheets improved through the spring and early summer as incomes were bolstered by stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits, while consumption fell as people ceased travel and restaurant dining. Consumer confidence has rebounded sharply from the steep falls of the early spring. But unemployment remains elevated, and certain industries, such as hospitality and tourism, face a long road ahead before workers and proprietors can expect to see a full recovery. Many businesses have closed or will close permanently. In that environment of uncertainty, many consumers will likely be reluctant to spend big on holiday gifts, even if their savings-account balances have improved. That environment provides all the more reason for retailers to encourage consumers to shop early if they can.