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Black Friday mutates along with the pandemic

It's a small sign of how different Black Friday will be this year that a shopper recently went to the Valley Plaza Macy's thinking she knew what she wanted for her fall wardrobe, only to find out she'd been all wrong.

After three hours of personalized attention and a private changing room, the woman ended up leaving with clothes she'd never pictured herself wearing — and feeling amazed, in the words of the stylist who helped her, Monica Guzman.

This holiday shopping season is going to be — or rather, has already been — remarkable not only because Macy's has begun offering the services of a personal stylist. Data suggest it may be the first year more people shop online than in stores, and perhaps the first time in decades most people expect to spend less on gifts than they did the year before.

Other changes shoppers will see involve pandemic safety measures such as greater availability of contactless curbside pickup. Also, with Kern County returning to the most restrictive level of pandemic precautions, stores and malls will have to monitor and limit crowd sizes as they've never done before this year.

Another big difference is that instead of being a one-day sale, or even a weeklong event, the aggressive promotions and markdowns that originally began at midnight on Thanksgiving actually began last month, in some cases earlier.

TREND ACCELERATION

In a sense the pandemic has accelerated a trend retail analysts have been eyeing for years. Consumers who were slow to embrace e-commerce, who liked trying on their clothes before buying, found no other option this spring. Expectations are that many will never turn back to shopping exclusively in person.

Jordan Cohen, Maine-based chief marketing officer at What If Media Group, said even until last year two-thirds to three-quarters of all holiday shopping was done in store. Based on the trajectory then, he didn't expect online sales would overtake brick-and-mortar shopping until 2025 or 2026.

"We accelerated the clock like 'Back to the Future II' as a result of COVID," he said, adding that owing to the shift online shopping will again be the predominant mode of holiday shopping next year.

That doesn't mean local and small businesses have to miss out amid the stampede to online shopping. He noted suburban communities in particular continue to view shopping as an important social interaction.

SMALL-BUSINESS OPTIMISM

Survey data from Union Bank supports that idea. It found 51 percent of respondents in California were ready to pay $20 more for an item to help a small or local business. Seven in 10 said getting the best deal wasn't as important as supporting small business.

Cohen emphasized the importance for small and local businesses to keep a focus on communications and engagements, highlighting customer service and contributions to the community such as donations.

The bad news for retailers, he said, is consumers aren't looking to spend much this year.

Having worked in data-driven marketing for two decades, Cohen said most shoppers normally say in surveys they plan to spend about as much on holiday gifts this year as last. Not this year: Most said it'll be less — and that it's because they suffered loss of income because of the pandemic or they worry they still might.

Another notable difference this year is how soon retailers started discounting the merchandise. Online deals surged in midsummer even before the present wave of deals arrived last month.

EARLY START

The National Retail Federation reported survey results Monday suggesting 40 percent of holiday shoppers started buying gifts earlier than normal. Three in five indicated they'd already starting crossing items off their shopping lists.

At Kohl’s, that trend has meant launching its official Black Friday sales earlier than ever, with deals on everything from Keurig coffee makers to Fitbit Versa 2 Smartwatches starting today.

Walmart said its earlier-announced intention of "adapting to meet the evolving needs of its customers" led it to spread its Black Friday deals, its best bargains of the season, across three separate dates, starting online and continuing in stores.

The first kicked off Nov. 4, the second Nov. 11. The last remaining of the three launches only at 4 p.m. the day before Thanksgiving then hits stores at 5 a.m. the day after.

The manager at Macy's, Deena Cota, emphasized the store is working to keep the holiday shopping experience as normal as possible despite necessary pandemic safety measures.

STAYING SAFE

There will be additional cleaning during store houses, plexiglass dividers at cash registers and hand sanitizer stations throughout the sales floor, she said, as well as online shopping with a ship-to-store option and contactless curbside pickup.

But in line with tradition, Macy's will also continue its annual Believe campaign, in which customers of all ages are asked to write a letter to Santa. For each letter it gets, the company donates $1 to the Make-A-Wish charity, for a total of up to $1 million.

"We're still trying to keep those things happening," she said. "We're going to make (the holiday) as normal as possible."

Guzman, the Macy's stylist who started in her position in September, sees herself as a jack-of-all-departments, ready to help people who make an appointment shop for anything from furniture to shoes to gift cards.

Her new role has put her in close contact with customers she interacts with using phone, email and Instagram (her handle is "style.by.monica"). One time, that connection allowed her to notify a customer the sweater she'd had her eye on had gone back on sale.

"She ended up coming back," Guzman said, "and buying two of them."

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf