How the pandemic has changed Black Friday and holiday shopping for good

Here are the five biggest trends that will affect Black Friday and the holiday shopping season.

Shoppers in Best Buy on Black Friday

Here are the five biggest trends that will affect Black Friday and the holiday shopping season.

Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

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Shopping is changing. It's not just the influence of COVID-19 altering what products we buy and how we buy them. It's also the many shifts in consumer behavior and retailer strategy — from the steady rise of ecommerce to the boom of on-demand delivery — years in the making, which have all been accelerated by the pandemic.

Nowhere will these shifts be more apparent this year than Black Friday, the most resilient of U.S. shopping holidays and once the cornerstone of the holiday shopping season. The ingrained culture, norms and irresistible deals of Black Friday were shattered last year before the availability of vaccines and during a frightening uptick in case numbers. A year later, many of the changes have become standard behavior, and retailers are being forced to adapt to a new reality.

To understand the state of shopping today and where it's going in the future, here are the five biggest trends that will affect Black Friday and the holiday shopping season.

Curbside pickup and BOPIS

Among the shifts in shopping: the point of contact with retailers. COVID-19 meant shopping less in store and more online, with many consumers flocking to whatever store or website promise them cheap and fast last-mile delivery. But delivery is costly, and it's not sustainable for many brick-and-mortar retailers already operating on razor-thin margins unless they operate at the scale of Amazon or Walmart.

That's where curbside pickup and BOPIS, or "buy online, pickup in store," come in, and the trend is expected to continue growing. "The cost of fulfillment for these companies is incredibly high," said Ant Duffin, a senior commerce analyst with the firm Gartner. "So what 'buy online, pickup in store' is being used for now is to drive online revenue, but also drive people into stores to give that economic balance between the two different channels."

A Gartner survey of retailers found that more than 65% of them expected the share of revenue captured by BOPIS orders to nearly double over the next few years to about a quarter of all sales. Curbside pickup, which pre-pandemic was almost exclusively used for groceries, is now being expanded to include almost any product you can buy in store, Duffin said.

Far fewer doorbusters

Black Friday's reputation is one of shopping chaos: the doorbusters, the stampeding crowds and the injuries and violence that can result. This year, like last year, expect far fewer of these types of aggressive, in-store-only deals designed to get consumers lining up and chasing each other down the aisles.

"We've seen a lot shift away from concentrating [deals] on Black Friday itself, not to mention the bad press that comes along … like people getting trampled," said Jordan Speer, a retail analyst with the firm IDC. "It's not healthy shopping."

While it's expected that at least some retailers will concoct strategies to get more people to come into the physical store, it certainly won't be the only way to score a cheap TV or discounted laptop. Now, more retailers push their deals up ahead of Thanksgiving week, and ultimately put more deals online after Black Friday.

Rise of the shopping bots

Hot in-demand items like new game consoles and affordable laptops have become extremely hard to come by over the last 18 months, due in part to complex global supply chain issues and an ongoing chip shortage. But where this plays out more directly for consumers is in the online shopping channels, where humans are increasingly competing with automated software to put products in digital shopping carts and clear the checkout process.

Bots have become integral sources for online shopping and deal-hunting, especially during the pandemic. The biggest subset of these bots are the scalpers looking to scoop up extra inventory and flip it for profit. "Scalper bots are becoming increasingly well known as attackers target high-end 'hot drops' — whether it's designer trainers or the new PS5 — and consequently receive extensive media coverage," explained Thomas Platt, security firm Netacea's head of ecommerce, in a webinar earlier this year. The scalper bot industry, Platt added, is becoming more sophisticated, too, as "the number of scalper bot actors grows and elite bot groups come to the forefront."

Yet scores of everyday shoppers are also now turning to bots, through Discord channels and Twitter accounts, to help notify them when inventory is back in stock or even turning to bot accounts to buy products secondhand. These practices, once reserved for supply-constrained commodity markets like limited-run sneakers and concert tickets, have exploded onto mainstream retail channels, making it harder than ever to buy new consumer electronics without employing some savvy software.

Cyber Monday and the extension of the shopping season

Black Friday is no longer just Black Friday. And that's both a blessing and a curse for retailers and shoppers. On one hand, the extension of the U.S. holiday shopping season is a multiyear trend that's been picking up steam long before the pandemic. It started by turning Black Friday into a multiday affair that includes Thanksgiving and the addition of Cyber Monday.

Now, retailers are looking at making it a multimonth shopping holiday by promoting Black Friday deals as early as October. "A lot of the retailers this year have started Black Friday deals much earlier," Duffin said. "I think it's interesting in the current environment, as retailers are trying to draw out the process and take the pressure off themselves." Duffin said it's evidence that Black Friday, at least the spirit of it, is alive and well, even if the deals aren't what they used to be and they're no longer centralized on a single day in November.

"Shopping holidays and shopping events have become well ingrained in society and culture," he said. "For brands and retail, it's part of their core calendar, and it's a value lever they can pull at this time of year, and it will create a certain amount of value." What that value amounts to, and how much it may diminish in the future, Duffin said will greatly depend on the success of this year's shopping season.

Higher prices and emptier shelves

Black Friday isn't going back to how it used to be, and both sellers and shoppers are now faced with a choice: Embrace the new form Black Friday has taken, or simply abandon it altogether. And the new shape of holiday deals in the U.S. is higher price tags and fewer available products, at least for the foreseeable future.

"As we head into the holiday season, there's a strong potential that we see products priced higher than they normally would be. But more importantly, less inventory of these products available," said Ryan Reith, a consumer electronics expert with IDC. "My personal belief is the channels like Amazon or Walmart are going to do everything they can to look as normal as possible. But I think what people are going to find is that the products they might have gone in for might not be there. There might be something similar, but it's going to be a higher price than they want."

This is, unfortunately, the new normal for many industries. Experts don't expect global supply chain and chip shortage issues to abate at least until well into next year. Meanwhile, retailers are adjusting every facet of their business — from how much inventory they buy and hold at a given time to what types of marketing strategies they employ — to keep their businesses afloat, ride out the uncertainty and try to adjust to new consumer behaviors.

"I think we have seen permanent changes in omnichannel fulfillment. We're not going to go back to pre-pandemic levels," Speer said. "I think these behaviors have become ingrained, because there was enough time. It wasn't like the pandemic lasted a week."

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