Black Friday sales are in full swing, but Trisha Stuart is unimpressed. The 55-year-old finished her shopping weeks ago – and did it all online.

She spent far less than usual – about $200 on an air fryer for her husband and gift cards for their four adult children – because, she said, “covid has put us on edge.” Stuart and her husband, who has early-onset Alzheimers, aren’t traveling this year. When she does leave the house, it’s mostly to pick up groceries from Walmart. Buying new clothes or housewares, she says, feels extravagant during these grim times.

The retired nurse from Green Valley, Ariz., is like millions of Americans who have tempered their spending since the coronavirus pandemic swept the country into recession: More than 20 million Americans are collecting some form of unemployment benefits. Retailers, meanwhile, have had to reimagine the most important shopping season of the year with public health in mind. The Black Friday “doorbusters” they once dangled to draw crowds have largely shifted online, and in-store offers are being staggered to allow for social distancing.

And though consumer spending has edged up in recent months, analysts say, it is unclear exactly how the holiday season will play out, especially at a time when coronavirus cases are rising at an alarming rate.

“There are so many unknowns – the economy, covid, unemployment – that could impact how willing customers are to spend this year,” said Scott Stuart, no relation to Trisha Stuart and chief executive of the Chicago-based Turnaround Management Association, a group that represents restructuring professionals. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that, fundamentally, everything has changed. Will there be more stimulus money? Will people be shy about spending? We just don’t know.”

The National Retail Federation this week projected healthy gains in holiday spending – 3.6 to 5.2 percent compared with the 3.5 percent average recorded the past five years – driven in part by grocery sales. The estimate suggests Americans will spend $755 billion to $767 billion. Online sales are expected to grow as much as 30 percent from last year, to $218 billion.

But despite the rosy outlook, the trade group acknowledges there could be some bumps for an industry that was hurting even before the pandemic. Dozens of major brands have filed for bankruptcy this year, and many more have announced sweeping store closures and layoffs. Apparel stores and mall chains, which typically rely on holiday sales for a major chunk of their profits, have been among the hardest hit.

“It’s hard to quantify such uncertainty,” chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said on a call with reporters this week. The latest forecast, he said, is “part science, part judgment and, of course, part luck.”

Still, retailers are pinning their hopes on an early online shopping season that they hope will help make up for months of lost sales. Walmart and Target kicked off holiday sales earlier than ever, in October. Others, such as Best Buy, Amazon and Nordstrom, started offering Black Friday deals online as early as Sunday. (Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

It will look different in-store, too. Store layouts have been reconfigured – wider walkways, one-way aisles – to discourage browsing. Target is allowing shoppers to circumvent front-door lines by reservation. There are new rules regarding masks, maximum occupancies and temperature checks.

But long-held traditions can be hard to give up. James Flanagan set his alarm for 5 a.m. on Black Friday so that he could be at GameStop before it opens at 7 a.m., just as he has for the past five years. This year, though, he’ll be wearing a mask and will keep a bottle of hand sanitizer clipped to his belt.

Flanagan, who lives in Northwest Washington, said he plans to spend about $200 on a handful of PlayStation 4 games before heading to Lids for a new Philadelphia 76ers hat.

“I’m old-fashioned,” the 21-year-old said, “but I still like going to the store.”

Flanagan said he’ll make at least one more shopping trip, to the mall in early December, to buy gifts for his family. He recently landed a cashier job at Dollar Tree, so he has more spending money than he did last year when he was still in college. Plus, he said, he’s been cooped up for most of the pandemic and is excited to “splurge a little.”

A shopper persuses fishing rods during Black Friday sale at Bass Pro Shops in Foxboro, Mass., on Friday. The outdoor specialty store opened their doors at 5 a.m. Mark Stockwell /The Sun Chronicle via AP

Lia Dangelico can relate. She has spent the past several months working from home – and buying online.

She plans to spend about $1,250 on holiday gifts this year, about $200 more than she did a year ago, because she won’t be traveling to see family.

“We always try to make it really special, but this year, since we won’t be together, I want everyone to feel extra special and loved,” said Dangelico, a communications director for a trade association in Springfield, Va. “We’re also super lucky to have secure jobs, so with so much staying in and no travel, we haven’t spent as much this year.”

The 33-year-old says she buys from small businesses, Black-owned shops and secondhand retailers when she can. She’s spent much of the pandemic stocking up on comfort items like incense, candles and a meditation cushion, and is considering buying a treadmill because she canceled her gym membership in the spring. Mostly, though, she’s been buying gifts for her eight siblings.

“It doesn’t make up for not being together,” she said. “But it just feels better.”

In El Paso, Dominique Olsson, 32, says she’s keeping things simple this Christmas: She’s already ordered T-shirts for her parents, a framed map for her husband, and necessities like clothing and a step stool for her 2-year-old son.

“Our financial situation hasn’t changed much – my husband is military, I’m prior military – so there hasn’t been a fear of where our next check will come from,” Olsson said. “But still, I’m not trying to spend very much this year. We just never know what might happen.”

Early in the pandemic, she and her husband canceled family trips to Sweden and St. Louis. But even as they’ve adjusted to the pandemic, she says, she’s choosing more practical gifts this year. Olsson is helping her sister with a car payment and got her three nieces and nephews a six-month subscription to Little Passports, which offers educational activities they can do at home.

“We still want to do something for our family, but we want to make it more personal than just buying things,” she said. “I’m usually conservative with money anyway, but this year that feels even more important.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: