What will Black Friday be like for Great Falls retailers?
People camped out hours before stores open their doors, mass crowds packed into each aisle, and fights over the year’s hottest deals sound like a typical Black Friday in the United States.
But 2020 has been anything but typical, and Black Friday is expected to follow that trend. Online sales could dominate this holiday shopping season, beginning with the post-Turkey Day deals. That shouldn’t have too big of an impact for major retailers like Walmart and Target, but locally-owned businesses could feel those changes the most.
“We have a lot of our inventory online,” said Beth Latham, co-owner of Bighorn Outdoor Specialists in Great Falls. “We have all of our stock from about 90 of our vendors available online. We have about 30 other vendors that we don’t have online yet, but we can always shop by phone, we do a lot of that, personalized shopping for people, we do curbside pickup, we ship things, we are doing anything we can to help people get their holiday shopping taken care of.”
Stores like Bighorn and Dragonfly Dry Goods face an uphill battle no matter how much time they put into their online stores and holiday deals. That’s because the big retailers have more established websites, more distribution warehouses to send out those online orders, and more people.
Alison Fried has owned Dragonfly Dry Goods for 23 years. This year, she says, has been unlike any other. Before the pandemic began, the store had eight employees. For the past 200 days and counting, it’s just been Alison and her husband. Every week, seven days a week. She said she made the decision for the same reason so many other small businesses have had to make cuts to their staff this year: to keep expenses as low as possible and save money wherever they can.
“Some people have always have it in their mind to shop local and they want to be able to come into a location and shop where it is your friend and it is your neighbor, and it still is,” Fried explained. “All of us downtown, restaurants, bars, other shopping experiences, it is all our friends and our neighbors, and so we all want us to be here a year from now, and the way to make sure that happens is you have to spend money. We have bills that we have to pay, and they’re not going away.”
Both Bighorn and Dragonfly have made several adjustments in an effort to adapt to this unorthodox holiday shopping season, but they’re undoubtedly playing from behind when it comes to competing with large retail chains. Dragonfly offers online shopping at Dragonflyshopping.com, and also has curbside pickup and free shipping. Alison says she wanted to do whatever she could to help customers feel comfortable and safe enough to continue supporting local businesses whenever they can.
Beth says Bighorn currently has stock from roughly 90 of their vendors online, with more on the way. For anyone who doesn’t want to shop online this holiday season, they’re also offering personalized shop-by-phone, curbside pickup and shipping. As Beth puts it, “anything we can to help people get their holiday shopping taken care of.”
This Black Friday and Small Business Saturday could be make-or-break for small businesses all over the country, not just in Montana. American Express created Small Business Saturday back in 2010 when the country was in the middle of a recession. They say the situation is as dire now as it was then. According to a survey that the company shared on its Small Business Saturday website, 62% of small businesses in the United States say they need consumer spending to return to pre-COVID levels by the end of 2020 in order to stay in business.
Neither Bighorn nor Dragonfly gave the impression that they might fall into that 62%, but it was evident that they both had high hopes for this holiday shopping season. A season that could make or break so many small businesses.
“The thing that helps us the most is for people to remember to shop local first whenever possible,” Beth explained. “A lot of businesses in Great Falls are turning themselves inside out to find new ways to meet the needs of our local customers, and it’s really important to remember that every dollar that we spend right now is a vote for the kind of town that we want to live in. If we want to live in a town that has independent coffee shops and bookstores and outdoor stores, then we need to support them, not just when it’s easy, but when it’s a little bit more challenging.”
Black Friday Shopping Could Follow Trend of Being Mostly Online
Jon Vincent has been analyzing Black Friday trends at EarlyBlackFriday.com for 15 years now. It’s safe to say that this year’s holiday shopping season is unlike any he’s ever seen.
“Online shopping is huge this year,” he explained. “If you look at the Black Friday ads from all the major retailers, you’ll see that, not only are the stores closed on Thanksgiving Day, but they’re really saying ‘don’t go to the stores, shop online instead.”
Jon also says that those Black Friday deals that you could previously only get on Black Friday itself were popping up earlier and more often this year. Some major retailers were even offering those “Black Friday Deals” on their websites a week before the big day.
The other major difference this holiday shopping season is the push to online shopping. Jon explained that, because of the practice that major retailers have had over the past eight months since the pandemic began, they were prepared for Black Friday and holiday shopping.
“Retailers are actually really optimistic this Black Friday,” said Jon. “They realize that there’s a lot of uncertainty in the economy, and it’s going to be somewhat similar to 2008, where we had a recession, and again, more uncertainty there. There’s not a lot of holiday dollars to spend this year, so retailers are really trying to push people to shop online, shop early, and capture those holiday dollars before the competition gets them.”
Even with that optimism, the expectation is that there will still be less dollars spent on Black Friday shopping overall this year in the United States. EarlyBlackFriday tracks Black Friday spending, among other things. Their analysis suggests that year over year dollars spent will be down this Black Friday, but online shopping will be more popular, possibly than ever.
“Year over year, we expect that this year is going to be the biggest increase in online Black Friday Shopping,” Jon said. “But pretty much every single year that we’ve covered Black Friday, sales have gone up online versus in-store.”
If you still have the desire to spend your Black Friday bargain hunting in person, that option is still available, but be prepared for some major differences compared to a year ago. Some stores will have capacity limits, and those crowds of people pushing each other over to get the latest game console from Walmart or Target? Yeah, probably going to be strongly discouraged this year. Even with social distancing and masks, Jon estimates that where will still be long lines this Black Friday, but they’ll be formatted to fit 2020. That means more space between people, masks, hand sanitizer; things like that.
Still, if you’re looking for that typical Black Friday rush of getting the best deals in person instead of online, Jon says it will be out there, even if it’s not quite the same.
“There will be some people that camp out, there will be long lines, they’ll be socially distant long lines,” he explained. “Overall, it’s just going to be a different feel, though, than in past years. You’re not going to get the in-store traffic, just because retailers are really pushing everyone to shop online instead, to try to alleviate the stores, because they realize the stores can’t handle as much capacity as they have in past Black Fridays.”
This holiday shopping season also has the potential to be especially difficult for small businesses. The guidelines regarding capacity limits and social distancing are the same for your local mom and pop shops as they are for Kohl’s, Scheels, and other major retail chains, but their capacity to push customers to their online shopping options is much weaker than those large retailers. Jon says where the big guys pull ahead is their access to large distribution warehouses, more resources to pour into their online shopping websites, and just more people.
“On the small business side, just knowing my local small businesses, it’s really just the community getting together to realize, ‘hey we want to support our local small businesses, we’re going to shop there’,” Jon said. “It’s really getting the community involved to try to invest in these local businesses. So, my advice to local small businesses would be go on social media, try to rally the community around you. The community will respond and they’ll help support those businesses. But it’s just really, really tough.”
Finally, will Black Friday and holiday shopping in 2021 return to normal?
The short answer is maybe. The longer answer is that experts predict that mostly relies on where the U.S. is in regards to ending the Coronavirus pandemic next year. Jon says that the news of a vaccine that could begin rolling out in a matter of weeks is promising, but health experts have warned that the vaccine won’t be the bona-fide solution right away if not enough people get it. Even then, we could still be wearing masks come Black Friday 2021.
“What we’re seeing now in 2020 with the giant push for online shopping and retailers basically saying ‘please don’t go to the stores,’ that will somewhat continue into 2021,” Jon predicted. “I think, assuming we have a vaccine, and COVID-19 is not an issue next holiday season, retailers do want people to go to the store still. They make a lot of money by people going to the stores, they do impulse purchases and things like that, so one change will be, ‘hey, please come back to the stores,’ but, the shift to going online and these online-only specials, they’re here to stay. You’re going to see those next year too, and it’s just going to be more and more online shopping.”