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Pandemic Plays A Role In Retailers' 2020 Holiday Strategy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's known as the Christmas creep. For years, stores have tried to get people making holiday gift purchases earlier and earlier and earlier - and this year, as early as October, as in this week. Of course, the pandemic has something to do with it. NPR's retail correspondent Alina Selyukh is here to explain.

Alina, tell me this is not really happening. Seriously?

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: (Laughter) I think it's only happening if you let yourself be part of it...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SELYUKH: ...And it's happening to you. To me, personally, I did wake up the other day to an email from Bed Bath & Beyond that had, like, little snowflake designs on it and some deals. So it's creeping in.

MARTIN: (Laughter). Right, it's...

SELYUKH: It's minor.

MARTIN: Yeah, it's not like, merry Christmas. But it's...

SELYUKH: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...You know, it's there.

SELYUKH: It's a bit of a technicality. What actually happened this week was called Amazon Prime Day. It's this shopping holiday that was made up by Amazon. And increasingly, everyone else just kind of jumps on board. You got Target, Walmart, Best Buy, even like Home Depot and my local coffee shop. And usually, Prime Day is in the summer to push people to shop when they don't normally shop. But this year, this summer was not a good time for sales. Deliveries were lagging. The supply chain was all kinds of messed up, so Amazon kind of delayed and delayed Prime Day. I mean, here we are...

MARTIN: Yeah.

SELYUKH: ...In October. So to answer kind of this question of was, you know, are the holiday sales really starting this week? We're, like, in the lobby to holiday shopping season...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SELYUKH: ...Maybe not quite in line to see Santa but definitely in the door.

MARTIN: Yeah, a lobby decorated with snowflakes.

SELYUKH: (Laughter).

MARTIN: OK, so...

SELYUKH: Just a few.

MARTIN: Right. But we're not even to Halloween. I mean, couldn't Amazon, other retailers at least wait till we get past that particular holiday?

SELYUKH: They could (laughter). And they will. But with some of these sales, I think, overall, companies that run these stores are treating them as a sort of insurance against a really unprecedented holiday shopping season. You know, get these sales - get these purchases now before something else bizarre happens. There are some other theories that may be this fall sale holiday might help spread out the usual crush of online orders that happens before the holidays and same with potential crowds in stores if there were to be crowds.

MARTIN: Right. So about that, I mean, are you expecting people to go to actual stores this year? Is there any data that you can point to that makes any kind of indication?

SELYUKH: This is the subject of so much speculation. I mean, some people will, but we know that the pandemic did convert so many people to online shopping. When it comes to stores, they're still restricting how many people can be inside at one time. They're still counting people going in and out. Another big change is that, finally, major stores have decided to close on Thanksgiving this year.

And we know that Black Friday overall, before the pandemic, had been shifting more and more online. The question is whether people will be able to get their online orders in time - and if they don't, will they rush to stores? - and whether some shoppers will decide they love the shopping tradition so much that they are willing to rub shoulders with strangers indoors...

MARTIN: Right.

SELYUKH: ...Hopefully not literally rubbing shoulders.

MARTIN: So just briefly, Alina, I mean, so much of our - the health of our economy has to do with consumer spending, right?

SELYUKH: Yes. And the good news is that retail spending has recovered enough to be above pre-pandemic levels. But people - and people are buying things. But just so much is up in the air that, just to illustrate, the retailers - for example, the big trade group, the National Retail Federation, for the first time in decades, has delayed its much-awaited holiday shopping forecast.

MARTIN: NPR's Alina Selyukh. Alina, happy holidays.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIDNIGHT FACES' "FEELING LIKE A STRANGER")

SELYUKH: (Laughter) I'm not ready yet.

MARTIN: Yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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