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Black Friday traffic could fall as much as 25% amid earlier deals, COVID anxiety

October 6, 2020, 4:57 PM UTC

Black Friday, which has long been retail’s biggest day, has been losing ground for years, as more shoppers turn to online gift buying.

And this year, the erstwhile holiday shopping kickoff sales event, with its long-ago scenes of crowds mobbing stores at midnight on Thanksgiving, will fade even further thanks to the pandemic.

One factor at play: With many retailers still smarting from sales drops earlier this year, the holiday season deals are already beginning to ramp up. Next week, as retailers like Target, Kohl’s and Home Depot try to compete with Amazon.com’s Prime Day, they will offer holiday discounts far earlier than last year, when things really got underway at the tail end of October. Companies are also hoping that getting more merchandise out the door earlier will help with COVID-induced inventory glut and the logistical challenges of responding to a massive surge in orders during the final days of the season.

Also hurting Black Friday this year? Retailers say they will push more of their doorbusters online to avoid big crowds at a time when they are trying to maintain social distancing in stores. All this adds up to a Black Friday that will likely see traffic to U.S. stores fall between 22% and 25% and make other shopping days more important, according to a forecast by data firm ShopperTrak released Tuesday.

“U.S. consumers continue to be more purposeful in their shopping journeys, so retailers need to make sure they capitalize on every in-store visit,” said Bjoern Petersen, president at Sensormatic Solutions, which owns ShopperTrak.

Interestingly, this year’s forecasted Black Friday drop comes despite most major chains—includingWalmart, Best Buy,Target, and Macy’s—closing stores on Thanksgiving for the first time in years, something that theoretically could have shifted more sales to Black Friday.

ShopperTrak is predicting that retailers’ efforts to even out the season over a longer period will succeed: It forecasts that the 10 busiest days in 2020 will generate 34.2% of all holiday store traffic, down from 46.5% in 2019.

Retailers’ caution is understandable given the uncertain trajectory of the economy, the potential for new lockdowns, and questions around ongoing assistance to the tens of millions of unemployed Americans. Deloitte recently projected holiday season spending would rise 1% to 1.5% this year, an anemic pace compared with recent years.

“Store capacity constraints and reduced hours will limit store traffic and productivity, making an earlier, more spread-out holiday shopping season preferable,” Bank of America wrote in a research note on Tuesday.