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What to expect from retailers on this pandemic-era Black Friday

November 26, 2020, 9:00 PM UTC

In the last few years, the crowds that used to throng stores for Black Friday have gradually thinned, as online deals released earlier and earlier in November diluted the shopping extravaganza. This year, between COVID-19-related crowd control and spiking e-commerce, Black Friday promises to be an even slighter shadow of its former self in terms of in-person shopping.

Since Amazon’s Prime Day last month essentially kicked off holiday season spending, prompting big stores like Target and Walmart to also offer Black Friday-like deals several weeks earlier than in 2019, consumers have long been in spending mode, likely muting any madness this weekend.

“The holiday shopping season started in October,” says Sonia Lapinsky, a managing director at AlixPartners.

Yet retailers, many still reeling from weeks of store closures in the spring, and wary of new restrictions between now and Christmas given the current record levels of infections across the U.S., are under the gun to have a strong Black Friday weekend. “It’s their last chance to actually pull something off this year,” Lapinsky says.

No crowding, please

But this year, pulling off a strong Black Friday is complicated by the fact that retailers can’t rely on some of moves in their classic playbook, like big doorbusters, which are unlikely to be enough to sway shoppers worried about visiting crowded stores. Data firm ShopperTrak recently forecast store visits on Black Friday could fall as much as 25% this year. And a International Council of Shopping Centers survey published on Tuesday found 69% of people planning to spend in a physical store, down from 84% last year.

The brick-and-mortar retailers themselves don’t want big crowds on Friday, preferring a steadier flow of business over the course of the season, lest they risk having workers and customers sickened.

“We are spreading the Black Friday event over the course of several weeks instead of making it about one day,” Home Depot finance chief Richard McPhail told Fortune.

Reversing so-called ‘Black Friday’ creep in the last decade that saw store opening hours slowly moving earlier and earlier from Friday morning to Thanksgiving late afternoon, almost all major retailers have returned to opening on Friday morning at 5 a.m., a tacit acknowledgement that there are diminishing returns to being open for so many hours.

Home Depot, Walmart, Best Buy and Target are among the retailers going as far as to meter the number of shoppers to a fraction of their stores’ capacity, a step all the more crucial as new daily COVID-19 infections near the 200,000 mark in the U.S. Target has even set up a reservations system in case lines form.

Macy’s, whose flagship in Manhattan sees crowds of 15,000 when stores open on Thanksgiving, is taking a muted approach this year too.

“We are definitely tamping it down because we expect the customer is not going to show up in the same (sized) crowds,” Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette told Fortune. “The whole month of November is the play, not just Black Friday.”

Showtime for e-commerce

The season as a whole is expected to be fairly strong. On Monday, the National Retail Federation said it expects holiday season sales to rise between 3.6% and 5.2% for November and December.

But as the last nine months have shown, retail success in a pandemic hinges more than ever on digital prowess, particularly on a high volume day like Black Friday.

Only three years ago, Black Friday weekend was still such a big deal it attracted 174 million Americans shoppers, or more than half the U.S. population. This year, in contrast, the sense of occasion is diminished with shopping clearly having started earlier. More important, shopping is going online even faster: Adobe Analytics has forecast U.S. online sales to be up 39% on Black Friday over 2019, hitting the $10 billion mark. (Last year they rose 20% over 2018.)

To get in on that, retailers need to offer services like curbside pickup and in-store retrieval of online orders.

Best Buy, for instance, saw online sales more than triple in October as the holiday season gathered speed, thanks in part to mastering those services. Some 40% of the electronics chain’s online orders last quarter were retrieved at stores, primarily curbside, practical for customers worried about going into a store.

“From an operations standpoint, we have really worked hard to build in a lot of optionality and we’re clearly using our digital channels as much as possible,” Best Buy CEO Corie Barry told reporters on Tuesday.

On top of all this, retailers have to contend with yet another pressure point: the absence of a stimulus package for lower-income workers, who typically have been hit much harder financially by the pandemic. A recent survey by Fortune and Civis Analytics found that 40% of families earning $25,000 to $50,000 are planning to spend less this year on holiday purchases, something that could dent sales at a chain like Walmart.

No one should expect tumbleweeds at malls or empty parking lots at big box stores on Friday: It will still likely be the second busiest in-store shopping day of the season after Super Saturday, as the last Saturday before Christmas is known. But Black Friday is a good gauge at the mid-point of the holidays of what’s working and what’s not as retailers start that final sprint.

“A big part of the season is still in front of us but so far, it’s playing out exactly the way it had anticipated,” said Target CEO Brian Cornell.