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Is the COVID-19 Pandemic the Final Nail in the Coffin for In-Store Shopping on Black Friday?

Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and pleas from health authorities to avoid unnecessary public outings, the familiar scenes of Black Friday’s past did not play out across the country: At parking lots, many spaces remained unoccupied. Outside stores, only short, socially distanced lines — or, sometimes, no lines — were formed. And inside, it wasn’t unlikely that employees outnumbered customers.

Following years of declining brick-and-mortar footfall and the rise of digital platforms, is the coronavirus pandemic the final nail in the coffin for in-store shopping on Black Friday?

Early data from the holiday shopping weekend points to the further acceleration of e-commerce: Americans opened their wallets earlier than ever as the majority of promotions had already begun more than a month ago, thanks to Amazon’s delayed Prime Day event. According to Adobe Analytics, online spending on Black Friday increased 22% from last year’s peak to $9 billion. Plus, the National Retail Federation reported today that, for the first time, the number of online Black Friday shoppers surpassed the 100 million mark — up 8% from last year.

Despite the perceived diminishing power of the post-Thanksgiving retail extravaganza, the trade group’s executive chief expects that crowds could return to stores and resume shopping traditions — if not ramp up their spending even more — during next year’s Black Friday holiday.

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“Black Friday is a consumer day that … remains of consequence because it’s a big day for economic activity, but it’s [also] evolved over the last decade much more so into a social day — and, you know, this is a year in which we can’t socialize the way we we would like to,” president and CEO Matthew Shay said during a call with reporters. “I’d be willing to bet that [if] we roll the clock forward a year, and the vaccines have been widely and safely distributed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Black Friday next year was the biggest in history.”

He added, “I just think that there’s going to be an enormous amount of pent-up demand for all of us to go out and to socialize and to be together and to experience some of the things that we miss right now.”

Today, the NRF shared statistics from the recent weekend: Together with Prosper Insights & Analytics, the trade group estimated that 186.4 million consumers took advantage of deals over the past five days. While the overall number of shoppers from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday dropped slightly from last year’s “unusually robust” 189.6 million, that figure is still significantly higher than the 165.8 million shoppers recorded in 2018.

“Just as retail continues to transform and evolve based on the external environment and on changing customer and consumer needs and preferences and expectations, I’m sure [Black Friday] will continue to evolve,” Shay added. “But I would never say Black Friday is no longer relevant. I think it’s always going to play a role in the psychology of the traditional kickoff to the holiday season.”

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