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Holiday shopping moves online amid surging coronavirus, retailers face shaky prospects

Holiday shopping moves online amid surging coronavirus, retailers face shaky prospects
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Long lines and crowds at shopping centers have been as much a Thanksgiving tradition as the turkey dinner, but this year, things could look different.

As COVID-19 numbers continue to surge, rushing to brick-and-mortar retail stores might seem not so appealing to many, and the holiday shopping season is moving online.

“More and more shopping was already moving online, but COVID-19 concerns are definitely accelerating the shift to online buying,” David Reibstein, a marketing professor from Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, told Xinhua.

The trend is evident as shown by recent data. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, reported that its third-quarter e-commerce sales surged 79 percent from a year ago. Amazon, the largest e-commerce retailer, reported a 37 percent increase in sales in the quarter.

Holiday season, a crucial period for retailers, generally refers to the days between Thanksgiving in late November and Christmas in late December. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is considered the start of the holiday shopping season.

Noting that many households are expected to depend on digital shopping to make many of their holiday purchases, the National Retail Federation (NRF) said in a statement that the online spending includes websites operated by bricks-and-mortar retailers, “which have become major players in the online market as retail channels have merged.”

Instead of one-day doorbusters on Black Friday, retailers are rolling out “a drumbeat of holiday deals” online, making it easier for shoppers to get the best sales at home, according to a CNBC report.

As COVID-19 continues to ravage the economy, unemployment is elevated, income reduced and customers “will be looking for bargains,” Reibstein said.

Stores are responding by starting Black Friday shopping early and letting it last longer, Reibstein added.

“There will be more price shopping by consumers and more desperation by retailers resulting in more price discounting,” he said. “It is going to be a rough holiday season for most retailers.”

“A rather pronounced shift” to online holiday shopping this year could hurt sales, said Lars Perner, assistant professor of Clinical Marketing at University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

“Very likely, that will result in some decline in sales, especially as people procrastinate and run into delivery deadlines that, originally, will probably be considerably earlier this year due to limited capacity,” Perner told Xinhua.

“Not all retailers will have been able to make a sufficient transition to online sales to be able to hold the same volume this year,” he added.

On an upbeat note, however, the NRF forecasted earlier this week that holiday sales during November and December will increase between 3.6 percent and 5.2 percent over 2019 despite uncertainty due to COVID-19. The numbers exclude automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants.

Online sales in retail industry are expected to increase at the fastest rate in 12 years, accounting for 20 percent of all retail purchases this year, up from 16 percent in 2019, according to Forrester Research data, cited by The New York Times.

In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases have been surging across the country, sparking concerns about increased gatherings during the holiday season and casting shadow over economic recovery going forward.

Nearly 1.2 million new cases were reported in the last seven days, according to the data updated by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday. Total cases already surpassed 12 million.

“Sadly, it looks like too many opted to travel instead of staying home, which could exacerbate the pace of infections as we move into December,” Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, a major accounting firm, wrote in a blog Wednesday.

“Any boost in activity we see from travel over the Thanksgiving holiday is expected to trigger an even larger pullback due to the surge in hospitalizations in December,” she said.

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