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The Doorbuster 'Black Friday' Stretches Into Online Sales Events

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For years now, we've been fixated on Black Friday and Cyber Monday as huge days for retailers and shoppers. But, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has changed all that. Social distancing requirements and economic stress have altered this year's holiday shopping season. We wanted to get a better understanding of what's going on, so we've called Abha Bhattarai. She is the national retail reporter for The Washington Post, and she is with us now.

Abha Bhattarai, thank you so much for joining us.

ABHA BHATTARAI: Thanks so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, can I just ask us to go back in time for a minute? Now, we've grown accustomed to seeing long lines forming overnight, stores packed with people looking for sales, so-called Black Friday. How did that start?

BHATTARAI: So Black Friday has been going on for decades. And like you said, it was - it's typically been a time when people could reliably get rock-bottom discounts. It was one day of the year when you were guaranteed to get the best deals out there. And so there were crowds, and there were stampedes, and there were people who would camp out all night long.

And that's really changed in the last 10 or 12 years. We've seen a movement away from that as stores began opening earlier. You know, we've had this movement towards Thanksgiving Day sales and then earlier in the week even. And the sales also last much longer. So this one-day phenomenon has been stretched into, like, a weeks and now month-long sales event.

MARTIN: So you're saying that the changes started before this year. But presumably things were very different this year. How were they different?

BHATTARAI: Some of the earliest Black Friday sales started in October. We saw Amazon move its Prime Day sale to October, mid-October. And that's when Walmart, Target and many other companies sort of kicked off their holiday sales as well. You know, every week by week, we're seeing new so-called Black Friday deals hitting different websites and stores. And it's just kind of continued. So it's become a weeks-long sale.

MARTIN: Did the numbers tell us anything? Have numbers come in from Black Friday? And is there anything interesting to report?

BHATTARAI: We have some preliminary numbers that suggest that traffic at stores was way down - about 50 to 60% lower than it was last year. But online sales are up. So we're seeing a definite shift in the ways that people are shopping.

We're also seeing a shift in when people are shopping. Many more Americans report having bought gifts, you know, earlier in October and November. We don't know what's going to happen even with the virus - whether there's going to be a rise in cases next week, whether there could be more shutdowns before Christmas. And so retailers are really encouraging people to shop as early as possible.

MARTIN: I don't know - how do you even evaluate the numbers at a time like this when you've got these completely different things - I mean, on the one hand, the stock market doing extremely well, on the other hand, lots of people out of work? How do you understand the retail numbers that you're seeing? What are we learning from it? How do we even put that into context at a time like this when there are these weird extremes going on in the economy?

BHATTARAI: Exactly. The holiday sales forecasts we've seen are all over the map just because there is so much uncertainty out there. You have a segment of the population that still has jobs that is perhaps - has more cash than usual because they're not traveling, they're not dining out. And so they feel like they can splurge a little bit this holiday season. But then you have millions of Americans who are out of work and just struggling to even put food on the table. And so it doesn't matter how good the holiday sales are. They're not going to be shopping this year.

MARTIN: Looking ahead to next year, do you have any sense of what the landscape might look like, what analysts think the landscape might look like?

BHATTARAI: I think there's a sense that many of these shifts are going to become permanent. This shift to online shopping is here to stay. We've seen many more people buy online and then pick up at stores. So curbside pickup is a phenomenon that's really picked up during the pandemic and is likely to continue even after it's over. We're also seeing a number of store closures, like you mentioned, and it's very unlikely that those stores are going to come back. People just aren't going to physical locations in the same way that they were maybe a decade or two ago.

MARTIN: That is Abha Bhattarai. She's the national retail reporter for The Washington Post.

Abha Bhattarai, thank you so much for talking with us today.

BHATTARAI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.