Generations of families have kicked off the holiday season in Chicago with a trip to Macy’s —formerly Marshall Field’s — store on State Street, peeking at animated window displays before visiting the 45-foot-tall, 3,000-pound decorated tree at the center of the Walnut Room restaurant.
The coronavirus pandemic won’t stop a tradition that began 113 years ago: The Walnut Room, closed since March, opens Nov. 7. But where diners used to stand in a rope line to wait for a table, this year, they will need to plan ahead.
Macy’s is requiring reservations and will start taking bookings on OpenTable this week. To limit crowds, only groups having a meal will be able to visit the tree.
Consumers have a lot on their plates as they deal with a global health crisis, job losses, pay cuts, a contentious presidential election and whether their kids can safely celebrate Halloween. Retailers face those same worries as they grapple with the all-important question for the fourth quarter: How to get people in a holiday spending mood?
The stakes are high. Holiday retail sales totaled $730.2 billion last year, according to the National Retail Federation.
One answer that’s already obvious in some stores is an earlier-than-usual start of deals to spread sales through the season.
Big chains and mom-and-pop retailers alike are prodding consumers to start spending early. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised people to avoid shopping in crowded stores on or around Thanksgiving to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Building Blocks Toy Store, with three locations in Chicago, later this month plans to send a holiday toy catalog normally distributed the week of Thanksgiving, in part because customers who were willing to wait outside capacity-capped stores this summer likely won’t be so patient during a frigid Chicago December.
“We’re just going to try to capture those dollars as early as possible,” said owner Katherine Nguyen.
Holiday promotions, which already had crept into early November in recent years, will start in October at some chains. Target plans special promotions Oct. 13 and 14, the same days Amazon will hold its annual Prime Day event, and Walmart is planning promotions Oct. 11 through 15. Amazon and Target are pitching it as a chance for customers to get started on holiday shopping.
Target and Walmart said they plan to spread Black Friday sales throughout the holiday season, and those chains, along with Macy’s and Best Buy, will not open on Thanksgiving.
The moves let “guests know they don’t need to wait or face the crowds to get the best deals,” Christina Hennington, chief merchandising officer at Target, said in a news release.
Shoppers typically bemoan the appearance of holiday merchandise before Halloween, but that may not be the case in an era of social distancing and more frequent online purchases.
About 46% of consumers plan to start their holiday shopping in October or earlier, while 43% plan to wait until November, according to a National Retail Federation survey conducted in September. Last year, 56% of those surveyed during the first week of November said they had started shopping.
The trade group launched an advertising campaign encouraging consumers to adopt “new holiday traditions” — shopping safe, and shopping early.
Prodding customers to get a head start doesn’t necessarily mean stores will roll out the decorations and start playing carols earlier than usual.
At Nordstrom, a long-standing tradition of waiting until after Thanksgiving to decorate stores “may be the thing that we get more positive comments about from customers than anything else we do,” president and chief brand officer Peter Nordstrom said during a call with investors in August. “But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be in a position of selling customers what they want when they want it.”
Macy’s windows will be decorated in November, though they may be up slightly after the Walnut Room opens due to a delay in production.
Macy’s has not yet announced the display’s theme, and does not plan to require any new procedures to view the windows, but said it will address crowds if needed.
The Walnut Room, which normally seats more than 550 people, now accommodates 142 diners at a time, with tables spaced at least 6 feet apart and a designated walking path near the tree where people can take a photo.
The reduced capacity means the restaurant can’t handle as many diners, but local customers can order family-style Walnut Room meals for pickup or delivery starting Nov. 27. Macy’s will sell meal boxes that can be shipped nationwide, with a chicken pot pie inspired by the Walnut Room’s original 1890 recipe, brownie and keepsake ornament.
It’s not the first time authorities, or retailers, have encouraged shopping early: In December 1918, during the influenza pandemic, the city health department advised Chicagoans to get an early start on gift shopping and avoid department store crowds by visiting during quieter morning hours.
“Don’t be afraid of the ‘flu,’ but conserve your strength, get all the fresh air you can, avoid excesses, avoid assembly places that are overheated and poorly ventilated,” the Tribune reported.
Stores, meanwhile, advised an even earlier head start, to avoid straining factories and shipping networks during World War I.
“Practically all shopping must be done in advance of December, if you would help us release people for essential war work,” Marshall Field & Co. warned shoppers in an Oct. 1 ad.
Consumers likely won’t need to shop that early this year, even though shipping companies say they have seen holiday-like volumes of packages as shoppers avoided trips to the store.
UPS said the average number of packages it handled each day in the U.S. jumped 22.8% during the second quarter compared with the same period last year. Chains like Target and Best Buy reported triple-digit growth in online sales during the same period.
Nearly 60% of consumers surveyed in September by the National Retail Federation said they plan to shift more spending online during the holidays than last year. Both UPS and FedEx are staffing up to handle the extra orders, with plans to hire more than 3,270 and 3,000 seasonal workers in the Chicago area, respectively. Nationwide, UPS and FedEx plan to hire more than 100,000 and 70,000 seasonal workers.
Some retailers are preparing to handle the surge with services that don’t require shipping packages to shoppers’ homes.
Bed Bath & Beyond and Buybuy Baby partnered with Shipt and Instacart to offer same-day home delivery, the retailers announced Tuesday. Both stores started letting customers place online orders for store or curbside pickup earlier this year.
Target plans to have twice as many employees handling curbside and in-store pickup orders this holiday season.
URBN, parent company of Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Free People, is hiring seasonal employees for its fulfillment centers earlier in the season and partnering with additional package delivery carriers in areas including Chicago and Texas.
Local shops, too, are trying to get a head start. Volumes Bookcafe & Bookstore, with locations in Wicker Park and the Gold Coast, started urging customers to plan ahead for the holidays in mid-July.
Cash-strapped publishers and stores are being cautious about the number of books they’re producing and ordering, which could make it tough to restock a title that becomes an unexpected hit, especially colorful kids’ books and cookbooks that are often printed overseas, said Volumes co-owner Rebecca George.
“It’s going to be a bottleneck of insanity…If people have any hope of getting specific big books, it’s in their best interest to preorder,” she said.
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