Pandemic transforms holiday shopping season that once embraced crowds, chaos

Rest easy, holiday shopper. You can take it slow this year. There will be no

Rest easy, holiday shopper.

You can take it slow this year.

There will be no need to bolt from Thanksgiving table to the big box stores for a doorbuster deal, no standing in long lines for a midnight opening or for your kid to sit on Santa’s lap. The pandemic has changed all that.

There are plenty of Christmas holiday items on the shelves at Reny’s. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

On the first Saturday of November, when all 17 Renys locations in Maine traditionally offer a 20 percent storewide discount between 6 and 9 a.m., you can enjoy a leisurely breakfast and still score a discounted deal.

“Usually, you try to get as many people in the store as you can,” said John Reny, president of the department store chain based in Newcastle. “You can’t do that now.”

Renys will continue its annual Early Bird sale, according to the company president, but this year will run it throughout that Saturday, Nov. 7, rather than only for three frenzied hours in the morning.

The decision is one many retailers are making as they head into a holiday season unlike any other, set amid a global pandemic. State safety guidelines limit stores to five customers per 1,000 square feet of indoor shopping space to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“Retailers are trying to stretch the season out as much as possible,” said Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine. “They’re going to be encouraging people to shop on less-busy days to spread the crowds out.”

That strategy runs counter to recent trends that promoted doorbusters and Black Friday sales as ways of driving high-volume traffic in limited time windows. This year, more shoppers are likely to take advantage of “BOPIS,” which Picard explained means “Buy Online, Pick Up In Store,” or even to have items delivered curbside.

Max Trott, a worker from Christmas Decor, hangs lights on a tree on Maine Street in Brunswick in October. The Brunswick Downtown Association is doubling the number of lights this holiday season to add cheer and tie in with its Lights of Hope campaign focused on local businesses. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Picard also serves on the Economic Recovery Committee for Gov. Janet Mills and said a modest increase in the customer limit within stores – which has not changed since June – is possible “to help alleviate holiday crowds and to minimize lines outside once the weather gets colder and snowier.”

Earlier this week in Brunswick, crews from Outdoor Lighting Designs began stringing lights on trees and lampposts along Maine Street as well as the town mall and gazebo. Later, live wreaths will be added.

Debora King, executive director of the Brunswick Downtown Association, said shoppers can expect nearly twice the number of lights this holiday season.

“We want to show the spirit of the community and how warm and welcoming we can be,” she said. “Lights personify that. We want to really light up the darkness during the middle of winter. Especially this year, we thought it was extremely important to make a special effort.”

Playing into that theme, a campaign called Lights of Hope encourages people to purchase gift cards from local businesses and donate them to the association for a big raffle drawing that in the past two years offered a cruise or trip abroad as a grand prize.

Brunswick will wait until mid-November to fully illuminate its downtown area. A celebration that typically includes horse-drawn wagon rides, free hot chocolate, songs by the Brunswick High School choir and Santa’s arrival by firetruck will be much more low-key on Nov. 28, with Santa lighting the town Christmas tree and three raffle winners being drawn.

There are plenty of Christmas holiday items on the shelves at Reny’s. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In neighboring Freeport, outdoor retailer L.L. Bean began hiring seasonal workers earlier this year – in August instead of waiting until September – because pandemic-related concerns prompted the company to cut shift capacity in half at its fulfillment center and add another shift. The company is also dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak at the fulfillment center after five employees recently tested positive.

Demand for outdoor recreation gear and clothing remains high as people continue to find both safety and fresh air in natural settings. Many classrooms and restaurant dining tables also have moved outdoors.

“We know that being outside makes us feel better – mentally, physically and emotionally– and it’s been great to see the increase in outdoor recreation this summer and fall,” said Amanda Hannah, L.L. Bean’s director of external communications. “We see that trend continuing. In fact, throughout this pandemic, our sales have mirrored the American psyche.”

When the pandemic took hold in March, sales of slippers doubled over the same month a year earlier, Hannah said, and L.L. Bean continues to sell a pair every minute, on average. In April, as people grew tired of being inside, sales of outdoor furniture and hammocks spiked, up 80 percent and 150 percent, respectively.

In May and June, the retailer saw fourfold gains in bike sales. In July and August, sales of women’s active apparel nearly doubled, paddle boards were up 167 percent, kayaks 140 percent and fishing gear 19 percent.

Last month turned out to be L.L. Bean’s strongest September in recent history, Hannah said, with significant growth in fleece and flannel as well as equipment for winter sports – including sleds and children’s snow boots – and water sports.

Workers from Christmas Decor hang lights on a tree on Maine Street in Brunswick on Thursday. The Brunswick Downtown Association is doubling the number of lights this holiday season to add cheer and tie in with its Lights of Hope campaign focused on local businesses. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

After cutting back on inventory purchases in early spring because of coronavirus uncertainty, the company has stocked up on home goods, outdoor equipment and comfortable clothing, Hannah said. She encouraged shopping early for holiday gifts because “we anticipate that many customer favorites will sell out as we approach the end of the year. The high demand in the outdoor industry and the impact of COVID-19 on global supply chains is a challenge for inventory and on delivery capacity for our shipping partners.”

At The Maine Mall in South Portland, Santa is still due to return, albeit in slightly different fashion than in past years. For one, the Christmas set will be located in the mall’s play area to allow for social distancing. Face coverings, hand sanitizing stations and daily temperature checks will be in use, even for the jolly old elf himself.

Reservations for Santa visits are strongly encouraged and already available on the mall’s website. The set itself opens on Nov. 27, Black Friday. For shoppers uncomfortable with visiting stores or potentially encountering crowds, a videoconferencing option with Santa or Mrs. Claus will be available beginning in November through a partnership with JingleRing, according to Maine Mall spokeswoman Rachel Wille.

“Our hope is that by continuing these traditions, we will not only help to spread the joy of the holidays, but bring a sense of normalcy to our community,” Wille said.

The mall currently has 12 stores offering curbside pickup service, she said. It also offers a line-queuing reservation system called Spot Holder to allow for smooth entry and exit involving stores butting up against capacity.

Small Business Saturday was started a decade ago as a community option sandwiched between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which tend to be dominated by large corporate entities. That emphasis on buying local will be stronger than ever this holiday season, according to Laura Dolce, executive director of the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Arundel Chamber of Commerce.

A customer passes an aisle stocked with holiday items at Reny’s. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Each year, the chamber organizes a pajama shopping experience on Small Business Saturday, which falls this year on Nov. 28, beginning at 7 a.m. Last year, more than 40 businesses in the three towns took part.

“We’re going to encourage people to consider every weekend as a shop-local event,” Dolce said, “but I think only one day will require pajamas.”

Kennebunkport’s storied Christmas Prelude celebration, hosted by the Kennebunkport Business Association, will be much more of a virtual event this year – its 39th – instead of attracting a parade of merrymakers to Dock Square. Dolce’s group is also putting on a webinar for local businesses that focuses on e-commerce, shipping and assembling a more robust digital gift guide “not just for local people, but to reach people far and wide.”

One aspect of the holiday shopping season that cannot be overlooked is whether, with so many layoffs and furloughs, Mainers will have extra money to spend on gifts. The hospitality industry just suffered through its most challenging season in memory. Employment levels have rebounded somewhat from springtime lows, but the most recent data show 8.7 percent fewer statewide jobs than there were in February.

“Pretty much in Maine, you make it in the summertime to make it through the rest of the year,” said Reny, the department store president. “I think it’s going to be tough for some people.”

For others, however, money saved from forgoing travel and dining out may shift toward holiday shopping as families attempt to wrap up a difficult year in a joyful bow.

Another factor to consider is whether schools can continue to hold in-person classes safely, or whether a rising caseload translates to extended shutdowns. A return to all-virtual learning would produce a ripple effect through retail and other industries because many parents wouldn’t be able to work the same shifts if their children weren’t able to attend school.

“Hopefully,” Reny said, “it’s going to work out all right.”


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