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US malls deserted on Black Friday as digital first-timers fuel online surge

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Americans were splashing out billions of dollars from their smartphones and laptops on Black Friday as those who have never shopped online before fuel a boom in ecommerce, leaving shopping malls deserted.

Despite good weather across much of the US, mall watchers reported sharply lower footfall than usual on what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. “It’s a very sad Black Friday” for bricks and mortar, said David Bassuk, co-head of retail at AlixPartners.

Amazon, Walmart and Target were on track to be among the biggest corporate winners from a surge in digital spending, consolidating their lead over struggling rivals as shoppers who are new to online purchasing turn to retailers with the strongest digital offerings.

By mid-morning on the east coast, online sales were set to increase between about 20 and 40 per cent from 2019 levels on Black Friday, according to estimates from Adobe, although the analytics group pared back earlier forecasts for an even bigger jump. It recorded $5.1bn worth of ecommerce orders on Thanksgiving — almost half from smartphones.

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Retailers including Walmart have sought to spread demand over a much longer period than usual, offering promotions as far back as October, reducing sales on the day itself.

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While shoppers were able to pick up bargains in person, and chains including Best Buy opened stores as early as 5am, most promotions were also available online.

Several retailers were taking customer temperatures at the door and some were asking them to provide personal details for track and trace. Stores in Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities were limited to 25 per cent capacity.

With coronavirus case numbers spiking, health authorities urged restraint. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified shopping in crowded areas as a “higher risk activity” that helps spread Covid-19.

About 9 per cent of online sales so far this week have come from customers who are new to internet shopping, according to Taylor Schreiner, director of Adobe Digital Insights, who said that such consumers “tended to skew older and hailed from rural parts of the country”.

The ecommerce surge is the latest sign that, despite the reluctance to shop in person, a sizeable section of the population — those who have remained in work and been able to save money from staying at home — is willing to spend.

Chess boards were proving particularly popular, thanks to the hit Netflix mini-series The Queen’s Gambit, as was the PlayStation 5, which has been in short supply.

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But retailers are nervous about the economic outlook as the pandemic drags on. “Consumers still face uncertainty with rising Covid cases and high unemployment,” said Sonia Syngal, chief executive of Gap, the clothing retailer, this week.

Converting additional shoppers to ecommerce threatens to cause more lasting damage for clothing chains, department stores and other bricks-and-mortar operators already ravaged by the crisis.

In New York, shopping centres that are usually bustling were a “ghost town” on Black Friday, Mr Bassuk said. “There are definitely a lot of people in New York. They’re just staying put.”

He added: “The second wave [of coronavirus] couldn’t have come at a worse time for retailers. It’s really hitting hard right now. Consumers want to be healthy for the holiday and they’re just being overly cautious.”

Bricks-and-mortar footfall in the run-up to the peak shopping season was sharply lower than usual levels, down 31 per cent year on year in the third week of November, according to RetailNext.

Initial figures indicated that Amazon, together with those bricks-and-mortar based retailers with the strongest online offerings, were increasing their lead over weaker operators.

In the week leading up to Black Friday, digital sales at Amazon jumped 65 per cent from 2019, Edison Trends figures showed. At Walmart and Target, two of the strongest bricks-and-mortar operators, they rose 167 per cent and 80 per cent, respectively.

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Ecommerce business at other companies has also risen sharply, but from a lower base and at a less dramatic pace. Online sales rose 19 per cent at Nordstrom, 23 per cent at JCPenney and 54 per cent at Macy’s.

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