The holiday shopping season is here, but is it back?

The pandemic is not over but with the help of vaccines and Covid-19 safety measures, Santa Claus is feeling much better about coming to town this year.

Stephen Arnold, president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, a business group with more than 1,800 members, appeared at only one tree-lighting event last year. It was a scary time, he said, especially for a group of older men who are often overweight and diabetic.

But this season, Mr. Arnold said his five tree-lighting ceremonies are back, including a sensational event he adores at Graceland, Elvis Presley’s estate in Mr. Arnold’s hometown of Memphis. . He plans to make more than 200 appearances, on par with his pre-pandemic schedule in 2019. Sometimes it can happen from inside a full-size snow globe like last year, and a significant part of its events. will be held virtually, but it’s a world apart from 2020.

“I think almost all of our Santa Claus intend to work a lot more than they did last year, and a much higher percentage, probably 65-70% of us, will come back to this. which we consider to be sort of a normal schedule, ”said Mr. Arnold, 71, said. “I’m trying to prepare for a season of relatively close contact.”

And so it is as the United States enters a holiday shopping season that is much more physically present than 2020, but not as carefree as it was before the pandemic. People are more comfortable shopping in stores, but the number of people returning will likely vary by geography and employees will generally wear masks.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade was massively expanded, with more floats and a longer route, although children under 12 were not allowed to participate in the parade itself. The large chains will offer certain festivities, such as champagne bars, which were lacking last year. Gift ideas and decorations will become more prominent in stores as retailers anticipate more people to browse and plan larger gatherings.

“There’s a lot of pent-up energy doing things,” said Marie Driscoll, managing director of luxury and fashion at Coresight Research, a research and consulting firm. “Everything old is new again. “

But the characteristics of a changed season remain. Many stores closed on Thanksgiving Day and holiday hours at some malls and chains will be shortened, in part due to a national labor shortage. And many people are bracing for a shortage of products like popular toys as “supply chain issues” become the chorus of 2021. There are also those customers who will stay away from stores, due to new habits adopted during the pandemic or lingering concerns about the virus and choose to shop online or using curbside pickups.

Ms Driscoll said signs of precautions would likely be seen in all stores. “Retailers are doing everything they can to make everyone feel comfortable, so at your discretion you wear a mask, there will be cleaners everywhere, there are options for self-service so you don’t have to necessarily to stand in line and in line, “she said.

The retail industry is still recovering from the drop in in-store shoppers last year. In November and December 2020, foot traffic to department stores plunged more than 30% from the previous year, according to data from Vince Tibone, senior analyst at Green Street, a real estate analysis firm. However, that picture appears to be improving, with a 9% drop in department store foot traffic in October compared to October 2019, the data showed.

Jeff Gennette, Managing Director of Macy’s, said in a recent interview that foot traffic in stores recovered significantly from 2020 but remained down about 19% from 2019. The decline was ” stubborn, ”he said, adding the retailer expected him to improve. in 2022.

Tom Nolan, managing director of Kendra Scott, a fashion jewelry company with 119 locations, said store visits varied by region.

“In the Northeast and the West Coast, the numbers are not what they were in Texas and the Southeast,” he said in an interview. While the channel’s sales were strong compared to 2019 or 2020, he noted that it was a boost for business when customers came to browse, especially with family and friends.

People are much more likely to shop while in a store than when browsing the store’s website, said Meredith Darnall, senior vice president of the retail division of Brookfield Properties, who oversees more than 130 shopping centers. “The ability to touch, see and talk to someone about the product is real. They also have additional sales – you come for the t-shirt, you are likely to buy the denim. Adding to the appeal of in-store shopping for retailers, she said, is the fact that return rates are much higher for online purchases, especially in clothing and footwear.

Many consumers seem eager to shop in person this year. The NPD group recently polled over 1,000 people about the holiday traditions they missed most in 2020 and hoped to return to them this year. About 36% said they missed browsing retail stores, while 30% said they couldn’t wait to go back to shopping malls and the “Thanksgiving and Black Friday frenzy.”

The shopping experience was radically transformed over the past year, as many people avoided lingering in stores and were discouraged from touching and testing products. Dressing rooms were closed or limited in many places. Makeup counters did not offer makeovers or lipstick or perfume samples. Plastic partitions, hand sanitizer, and social distancing reminders dot the landscape. Customer events have been reduced or canceled.

This week, Saks Fifth Avenue unveiled its holiday storefront and 10-story light show at its flagship store in New York City. The retailer, which took a break from its annual tradition of closing Fifth Avenue for a musical performance last year, returned there this year with a performance of New York’s Young People’s Chorus and an appearance by Michelle Obama. Approximately 22 Nordstrom stores will have “immersive” photo booths.

At Bloomingdale’s flagship store on 59th Street, the store has fewer events than the 400-plus it hosted in 2019, but far more than in 2020, when its limited activities were outdoors. There will be more food and drink for shoppers this season, including champagne and espresso cups, although they are handled with more care than in the past. The store hosted a performance by Bebe Rexha when it unveiled its holiday windows this month, but limited it to around 15 minutes and carefully managed capacity and spacing.

“If you had spoken to me in 2019, we would have had spreads made with caterers coming in and pouring appetizers and champagne,” said Frank Berman, marketing director of Bloomingdale. Now food is more likely to be prepackaged and events such as cooking demonstrations have been more restricted.

Still, he said, the retailer has seen a recent surge in tourists and a growing willingness from shoppers to spend time wandering the store.

“When it comes to Covid, they feel safer, and you see more of these inspiring purchases, people are going to make it a day in our store,” Mr. Berman said. “They’re walking around the store and it’s not about ‘I have to pick this item up and get out.'”

There are also significant changes in what people buy compared to last year. Dress clothes and luggage are popular again as people have started to travel and socialize again. And the boom in pet adoptions has led to an explosion in dog clothes, which are welcome in the store, Mr. Berman said.

The footprint of technology on physical retail has never been clearer. Bloomingdale’s still offers dozens of virtual events in addition to in-store activities. Buyers now expect to be able to see if products are in stock before they hit the stores and for associates to help them post them, free of charge, when not available, said Ms. Driscoll of Coresight. .

Nordstrom is one of the retailers using the space in front of its stores for dedicated shelves for online pickup, said Ms. Darnall of Brookfield Properties. Curbside pickup remains popular in malls and other big box stores.

As for Santa, Mr. Arnold is busier than ever as virtual tours add to his in-person concerts. Some parents prefer them after last year because the experience can be more magical once Santa is prepared by parents.

“You have so much information, you become so real and have a real conversation,” he said. “Then you stop talking and ask them things, maybe about the elves or the reindeer or about Mrs. Claus and what she’s cooking in the kitchen.” Every once in a while you have a tough question like, “Can you bring grandpa back?” And you try to get out of that one.

Yet it is a year of reconstruction.

Mr Arnold’s group, which numbered more than 2,000 members last year, has shrunk after many artists who were unable or unwilling to work in 2020 failed to renew their memberships. Mr Arnold is confident of a solid comeback next year at the time of the International Santa Celebration event in Atlanta in April, which had been delayed by the pandemic.

“You are going to see that the majority of Santas are going to feel like they are back to relatively normal conditions,” he said, adding that he was prepared with his vaccine and a booster. “And most of us who are smart enough will practice safety measures.”

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