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Hitting the stores on Black Friday? Here's what to expect from another year of pandemic-era holiday shopping

Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

Even as retailers charter cargo ships and planes to try to get merchandise on shelves in time for the holidays, the number of “out of stock” messages shoppers saw online jumped 325% in October, compared with the same month in 2019, according to Adobe. Issues with out-of-stock items were most common in electronics, jewelry and apparel.

Retailers say they’ve taken steps to keep shelves stocked. Target, Walmart and Macy’s said last week they had 18%, 11% and 19% more inventory on hand than last year, respectively.

“We certainly have pockets that remain tough, but we’re mitigating those,” Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette said during a call discussing the company’s earnings last week.

Deep discounts, too, could be harder to come by. There will still be Black Friday sales, but retailers don’t need to dangle big discounts on popular items when the supply is limited, said William Kammerer, supply chain leader for Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Retail & Consumer Products. Many businesses are also facing higher costs, including for transportation.

Adobe forecast discounts would range from 5% to 25% across categories this year, compared with 10% to 30% in past years. As of earlier this month, discounts on electronics, sporting goods, appliances and home improvement products were weaker than last year, while toys and computers saw bigger discounts.

More online shopping, curbside pickup

People skipping the store to shop from the couch aren’t missing many deals, with fewer stores saving “doorbusters” for shoppers willing to line up at bricks-and-mortar stores. Kohl’s has made its Black Friday deals available online and in stores for a couple years. At Target, nearly all Black Friday deals are available online, except items like TVs 48 inches or bigger, which the retailer won’t ship.

Amid concerns about shipping delays and out-of-stock items, a growing share of online orders may be picked up curbside rather than mailed to a doorstep. Many retailers that didn’t offer that service before the pandemic now do, and others have made it easier to use. Adobe expects curbside pickup to account for 1 in 4 online orders through November, and as many as 40% during the final two days before Christmas Eve.

 

Help wanted

Retailers always staff up for the holiday rush, but this year, they’re competing with lots of other companies eager to hire. U.S. companies announced 940,300 seasonal jobs this year — 11% more than last year, and the most since recruiting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas began tracking the figure in 2012.

Retail executives surveyed by Accenture said they changed their hiring practices to meet demand for workers over the holidays, offering bonuses or increasing wages during critical portions of the season, said Managing Director Lori Zumwinkle.

“They’re optimistic and believe they’re ready for the holiday season,” she said.

Target said last week that it has been hitting seasonal hiring goals, and Walmart said it hired 200,000 people during the past quarter, about 25% working in supply chain and the rest in stores and other areas.

Still, retailers and transportation and warehousing companies hired 9% and 17% fewer people in October, respectively, than during the same month in 2020, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

“Clearly, companies are gearing up for high demand this holiday season, but the worker shortage will complicate matters. Even if there weren’t issues in the general supply chain this holiday season, the worker supply shortage too will mean longer wait times and un-stocked shelves,” Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said in a statement.

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