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Nov 26, 2020
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Toilet paper or television. PlayStation or paper towels.

How we are shopping this holiday season – and what we are shopping for – has changed, sometimes dramatically, amid the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, a can of Lysol spray or 12-pack of double rolls might feel like a better score than a Black Friday doorbuster.

Now, the annual holiday shopping pastime coincides with a pandemic that has brought record COVID-19 infections threatening public health and record unemployment undercutting Americans' financial wellbeing.

Still, despite reports of its demise, Black Friday hasn't been canceled; it's become more like the longest Cyber Monday ever. And while public health officials hope that, if you don't build it up, crowds won't come, stores are still stacking piles of TVs in front of some of the closed fitting rooms in anticipation some will.

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Preventing a COVID superspreader
The images of Black Friday shopping frenzies past surely struck fear in the minds of retailers, employees and public health officials. We all know the scene: A crush of shoppers barely a breath apart, grabbing at the same unbelievable deal, whether gaming console, TV, toy or bra.

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This year, 2020, had to be different.

In guidance issued before the fall holidays, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified “shopping at crowded stores just before, on or after Thanksgiving” on a list of higher-risk activities to avoid.

The nation's largest retailers have been taking precautions from more regular cleanings, plastic sneezeguards at checkout counters, mask requirements to limiting the number of shoppers inside.

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They've turned Black Friday from a short sale into a month-long series of smaller sales that kicked off in the beginning of November to encourage shoppers to beat the rush and spread out demand.

And in the name of safety and crowd control, they moved many of the traditional big-ticket doorbuster items and most in-demand items like the new Sony PlayStation 5 to Microsoft Xbox Series X and S, which led some shoppers to camp out, into online-only sales.

Early shoppers should still expect to line up to enter stores, which has become more commonplace during the pandemic.

According to a survey from the International Council of Shopping Centers, deals and promotions were not the top factor for shoppers in choosing where to shop over Thanksgiving weekend. COVID-19 precautions were for 36% of survey respondents.

“Malls and shopping centers are historically a hub for holiday tradition and festivity, so the holiday season may feel different this year as retail spaces contend with the challenges of COVID-19,” Tom McGee, ICSC president and CEO, said in a statement.

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Black Friday or early Cyber Monday?
For years, Thanksgiving and Black Friday have marked the official kickoff to the holiday shopping season and the time of year when shoppers get focused on holiday spending.

That rush of spending gave Black Friday its name, as in the time of year when retailers were "in the black." For nearly a decade, that official kickoff has been creeping ever closer to Thanksgiving, eating into time people used to spend around the holiday table.

Over the years, shoppers pledged to boycott stores that opened on the holiday yet other shoppers still lined up even as more sales moved online.

COVID-19 has helped reverse the trend of Thanksgiving Day store openings as retailers reverted to giving their employees a day to spend with their families.

"We know it’s been a trying year, and you’ve stepped up," Walmart U.S. president and CEO John Furner wrote in a letter to employees in July, when announcing stores would be closed on Thanksgiving for the first time since the late 1980s. "We want you to enjoy the day at home with your loved ones."

A handful of stores are still open on Thanksgiving, but it pales in comparison to last year with Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Macy's and J.C. Penney among stores that stayed closed.

Target and other big retailers have shifted sales of crowd-drawing products, like the PS5 and new Xbox, to online and app purchases.
Some stores including Kohl's will start another new round of online sales on the holiday and allow shoppers to pick up their orders as early as Friday. Kohl's two-day "Super Deals" is part of the Black Friday Week sale.

Curbside pickup, where allows shoppers can pickup orders without leaving their car, had been rolled out as an option at some store locations years ago but is now a larger part of Black Friday sales than ever.

Early in the pandemic, many stores started adding curbside as a contactless option even as some stores were closed to shoppers. Among the stores that have added curbside are Best Buy, Macy's, Kohl's, Old Navy and Signet Jewelers. In time for the holidays, Walgreens rolled out same-day pickup in as little as 30 minutes and lets shoppers pickup online orders in stores, curbside or at the drive-thru. (See the list of 60 retailers offering curbside here.)

Opting for curbside pickup also is a way to avoid any shipping delays, Sara Skirboll, RetailMeNot shopping and trends expert, told USA TODAY, adding her research found that over half of retailers plan to offer it as an option this season "to ease the stress of holiday shopping.”

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