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COVID-19 and Alabama's holiday shopping season


Small businesses in Alabama are looking to get an economic boost from holiday cheer. COVID-19 is changing the holiday shopping experience at a time when mom-and-pop shops are on a thin lifeline from the pandemic.

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Think of holiday shopping seasons past. That image might be of malls and small shops are flooded with crowds, right? The beeping of cash registers sing the songs of sales as shoppers tick off their holiday gift list. Customers move store to store, a hot chocolate or a pumpkin spice latte in hand, grabbing stocking stuffers and big-ticket items from holiday door-buster deals. But because of COVID-19, that’s not really the case this year.

Nancy Dennis is the Alabama Retail Association’s Director of Public Relations. She said Black Friday is typically the kick-off of the holiday shopping season. But this year, the pandemic is causing a lot of traditional shopping trends to be thrown out the window.

“Where people shop, how people shop, when people shop, it’s shifting in a lot of different ways,” Dennis said. “The first big change, and it’s already begun, people are going to start shopping in August. But they really started in earnest this year in October.”

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Dennis said there’s been a big shift away from Black Friday shopping this year. She said the state is seeing more of “Black November” sales. That’s where retailers offer big savings every Friday in November and holiday spenders snap up the bargains. 

“They’ve already got a big part of their shopping done,” Dennis said. “They realized with COVID, that they needed to get their holiday shopping done early. Shoppers don’t want to be in crowds. That’s a high-risk activity for [the] coronavirus.”

Alabama health experts applaud shoppers taking precautions to not get sick and helping to keep others from getting the virus, but a recent study from Womplyshows spikes in COVID-19 around the holiday season could keep customers away from small businesses, too. That could be the final nail in the coffin for local shops trying to rebound from loss of sales caused by the pandemic.

Brad Plothow is the VP of brand and communications at Womply. The commerce platform provides apps, marketing, and financial tools to help generate avenues for businesses and customers. He said his company commissioned a study specifically on mom and pop stores.

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“Small businesses are really struggling. They really have a short life-line in terms of how long they can survive,” Plothow said. “When we talked to small businesses across the country, we see that they have their eyes all year long on this holiday season. Black Friday to Christmas Eve is really important to small businesses in particular. For Alabama, three out of the top four weeks of the year occur during that period.”

Dennis said their data points to the same findings as Womply’s. The message is that businesses need the revenue generated from holiday shopping to survive.

“Retailers have always depended on holiday shopping to make their money for the year,” Dennis said. “And for some businesses, it’s up to 25 percet of their sales coming in the months of November and December.”

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COVID-19 slowing down sales with small shopping crowds in Alabama is just worry. Another big concern has to do with a second round of stimulus checks being held up in Washington.

Plothow said money is tight right now for many people during the pandemic. Some shoppers are banking on that check to be able to buy holiday gifts this year. Without federal assistance, some people may not be able to do much spending. Plothow said this has many in the small shop industry on edge.

“The lack of the second round of stimulus is the top concern for small businesses,” Plothow said. “We just did a poll of 1,000 small businesses, and it was the biggest thing on their minds. It’s a double-whammy for small businesses.”

Plothow said the first blow to the sector comes from consumers who aren’t getting the stimulus. That could mean there will likely be less money spent in local shops during November and December.

“The small businesses themselves, who have these high overhead requirements, they have to pay their rent, pay their employees, and do all of these things. They also aren’t making as much money as they are used to. They need that revenue. Because they aren’t getting an additional stimulus or money from consumers, they are really hit twice,” he said.

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Plothow said local shops are giving their all to stay afloat. During a time when the sector is really struggling, he said the pressure from the pandemic has given way to better business practices.

“There’s certainly a lot of creativity and ingenuity,” he said. “The small business sector is one of the most resourceful sectors of our economy because they’ve had to be to be able to thrive and survive.”

A couple of ways small businesses are stepping up their game is by shifting to online or app ordering. Others are offering curb-side pick-up to make things more convenient for customers.

“They’re also looking for ways to make the experience safer and more comfortable," Plothow said. “We’ve even seen small retailers setting up pop-up shops in their own parking lots so that people don’t have to go into the physical store to buy things. It’s important for those businesses to stay creative. And it’s important for consumers to spend money there, because if not, they may not be here in the spring.”

Alabama shoppers seem to be aware it’s “make or break” for many small businesses right now. Dennis said those who can spend money this year, are making sure to keep their dollars local.

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“About 54 pecent of shoppers plan to spend more on small businesses because of COVID, because they know that if those small business are going to stay open, they’re going to need business during the holiday shopping season,” Dennis said. “Many consumers are aware of this, and they plan to shop with the smaller businesses in their communities.”

Dennis saidthe pandemic isn’t just changing where people buy. It’s also changing what people spend their money on.

“People are buying different things,” she said. “They are buying things that spark joy: music, crafts, things that have meaning to them. They aren’t buying so much for themselves.”

Dennis said books and plants are also popular this year, along with cookware or bakeware. These items feed into popular hobbies people have taken up at home during the pandemic. Dennis said this year gift-givers are really looking for something that will make their loved one’s life joyful and meaningful.

“It’s a little less me, and more about everyone else,” she said.

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While mom-and-pop shops and small businesses are leaning heavily on holiday cheer to bring in a big boost in business, Plothow said it’s not just a swipe of a credit card that will help keep them afloat.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last five or 10 years,” he said, “it’s that social media has a massive effect on changing behavior. There’s no end to its power in the way that it shapes people to vote with their vote or vote with their wallets.”

Plothow said when it comes to spending money in local markets around Alabama, people listen to their friends; they listen to the people who they trust. Plothow said sharing a post from a small business, dropping a comment or giving a like can make a difference for small shops.

“If people are pointing out that it’s important for us to support local businesses, and are encouraging people to do so, and promoting specific shops that they like, even if they aren’t spending money on those businesses, they still may be pointing dollars to the local economy,” Plothow said.

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The holiday shopping season might look different this year. But it still seems like there are plenty of ways to spread dollars along with some cheer.

Baillee Majors is the Morning Edition host and a reporter at Alabama Public Radio.
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