Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

COVID-19 pandemic dramatically alters holiday shopping season

Delaware Public Media

Thanksgiving is just days away, and with it the holiday shopping season.

But this is likely to be a holiday shopping season unlike any other as retailers and consumers try to navigate the coronavirus pandemic that has worsened in recent weeks.

Contributor Eileen Dallabrida give us a preview of what to expect from holiday shopping in 2020.

In a holiday season with limited merry making, shoppers are expected to spend less and devote more of their dollars to pragmatic presents and sentimental treats that will help their loved ones weather the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Consumers are expected to spend an average of $1,387 per household during the winter holidays, down 7% from 2019, according to research by Deloitte. A survey by trend tracker JLL is even more pessimistic, predicting shoppers will spend 20% less. That’s due, in part, to a paucity of parties and sharply curtailed travel plans as Americans are encouraged to stay home.

Merchants are making adjustments to keep consumers safely spending. At Continental Jewelers in North Wilmington, customers make an appointment for one-on-one service. 

“That allows us to monitor how many people are in our store and sanitize between visits,” says owner Chrysa Cohen.

"The pandemic speeded up consumerism five years. Small local businesses have to keep up." - Continental Jewelers owner Chrysa Cohen

Continental is in the process of updating its website so customers can schedule appointments online as well as by phone. Cohen foresees a time when many consumers will pre-shop on an indie retailer’s website, and then come in to learn more and make purchases.

“The pandemic speeded up consumerism five years. Small local businesses have to keep up,” she says.

In a time of uncertainty, Cohen says shoppers are gravitating toward personalized pieces instead of flashy items. A grandmother brought in a pendant that Cohen is remaking into rings for her client’s granddaughters. While weddings are being postponed or downscaled, sales of engagement rings are up.

“We have guys who say they have been with their girlfriends for four, six, ten years and now they want to get married,” she says. “People appreciate family more. They are pondering their relationships. It’s all about sentiment and symbolism.”

Amid spiking COVID cases, shaky supply chains and concerns about potential lockdowns, consumers are shopping earlier. JLL’s survey says 43% of Americans will shop before Thanksgiving, compared to 33% last year. Part of that boost can be attributed to Amazon Prime Day in October, which inspired a number of other online retailers to offer big bargains long before Black Friday.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Curbside pick-up was a blip on the radar a year ago. Now, it's a primary way to complete holiday shopping.

Expect the trend toward online shopping to continue throughout the season. An NPD Group survey says 51% of shoppers will buy most of their gifts online to reduce their COVID risk. Here are other trends to watch:

  • Thanksgiving Day shopping is out of fashion. Walmart, Kohl’s, Target, Old Navy and Macy’s, all of which have opened on Turkey Day in recent years, will be closed. Expect drug stores, grocery stores and dollars stores to remain open.
  • Cueing at the curb. Last year, curbside pickup was such an outlier that market watchers did not gather statistics on the practice. This year, just under 24% of consumers plan to order holiday purchases online and pick up curbside, according to JLL.
  • Multi-day sales instead of Black Friday doorbusters. DICK'S, the big box sporting goods store, is offering its Black Friday deals over a 10-day period, starting Nov. 18. The retailer has also hired more workers to ship goods from stores and fulfill one-hour curbside pickup orders.
  • Click ahead to avoid crowds. You can go Target’s website and learn if there are long lines at the store.
  • Fewer places to shop in person. Pier One, SteinMart, Sears and other retailers are gone, casualties of the economic downturn created by the pandemic. A number of indie boutiques have shuttered their storefronts and are doing business online only.
  • Sweet indulgences. There’s an emphasis on gifts that evoke a sense of comfort. Ohm (Only Healing Minerals) is offering relaxing bath and diffusing blends. Round Barn Winery has rolled out cream liqueurs in mint chocolate, walnut and salted caramel. Black Dahlia is serving CBD gelees and bonbons.
  • Social media amid social distancing. Tanger Outlets in Rehoboth Beach is introducing Live Stream Shopping, an interactive platform available to the center’s 1.8 million Facebook friends, that will allow shoppers to use their mobile devices to see products at outlet stores, in real time presented by real people.
  • Self improvement. Fitness products and self-care items are on many wish lists. LifeFuels touts a high-tech water bottle with pods containing various nutrients and an app that tracks hydration. Banish offers a skin care line and tools to help users emerge from self isolation with a clearer, smoother complexion.

Libby Neuner of Wilmington is sticking to utilitarian gifts, including a 186-piece vanadium tool kit from Sharper Image for pandemic DIY projects and a wearable electric blanket.
“Santa will probably bring one of those for me, too,” she says.

Elizabeth Moro appreciates things with some age to them, plus recycling and repurposing existing goods is environmentally friendly. She is shopping at local consignment and antique shops as her children prepare to leave the nest; she just found a vintage picnic hamper she will fill with china, crystal and wine for her daughter.

“The Encore on Route 52 is the best for vintage home goods. The kids are establishing their own abodes and it is fun to find a beautiful silver piece, Fiestaware, 1950-60s barware or dish that they can enjoy,” she says.

With unemployment still high and a second stimulus check up in the air, 29% of consumers say their finances are somewhat or a lot worse than last year. Bargain hunters can expect abundant deals before, after and on Black Friday. Best Buy, catering to people who are feathering their nests, is offering a Samsung gas convection range for $700, marked down $400. Macy’s will cozy up to customers with Martha Stewart’s diamond-tufted velvet quilt for $77, a discount of $143. At Target, picture an LG 70-inch 4K smart TV for $550, $300 off.

JLL predicts Millennials and young Gen Xers—age 30-44—will tighten their belts the most, trimming their budgets 31% compared to last year. Shoppers over 60 will reduce their spending the least of any group, an average of 13.5%.

Consumers also will find opportunities to mask up and shop outside. In Chesapeake City for example, the open-air market sponsored by Newark-based Poplar Hall, will feature local artists, chefs, and artisans, also on Dec. 12.

Michele Hart-Henry of North Wilmington is seeking out outdoor markets where she can buy small handmade gifts. But she and her family are keeping gift giving to a minimum. They will celebrate after the pandemic is over.

“I really want to find a giant house on the beach and throw an amazing ‘Happy Everything, Happy Everybody’ party, the minute it’s safe to do so,” she says. “This year has taught me just how much I miss those shared times and experiences with family and friends.”

Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.