US online sales surge on Black Friday amid Covid-19 crisis, malls forced to be creative to sell

American consumers, staying home amid the coronavirus pandemic, spent US$9 billion online on Nov 27, a 21.6 per cent increase over the same day in 2019. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

NEW YORK (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - Online sales in the United States surged on the traditional Black Friday to set the country's second-highest one-day mark ever as virus-wary Americans shunned in-person shopping, software firm Adobe reported on Saturday (Nov 28).

American consumers, staying home amid the coronavirus pandemic, spent US$9 billion (S$12 billion) online on Friday (Nov 27), a 21.6 per cent increase over the same day in 2019, Adobe said.

It said Friday's sales were surpassed only by those of last year's Cyber Monday - the Monday after Black Friday - when the focus is on online sales.

Notably, some 40 per cent of sales were conducted over smartphones, and many consumers supported small businesses. Their sales jumped by 545 per cent on Friday compared with the average day in October.

Adobe said 38 per cent of consumers said they planned to support smaller local businesses ahead of the year-end holidays.

"We anticipate this weekend being one of the biggest e-commerce events in history, as consumers vote with their wallets and support the independent and direct-to-consumer businesses they love," said Mr Harley Finkelstein, president of Canadian multi-national e-commerce firm Shopify.

This Monday, with the usual surge of Cyber Monday spending amplified by the Covid effect, analysts are predicting an all-time record.

Sales are expected to total from US$10.8 billion to US$12.7 billion, up by 15 to 35 per cent.

With more people working from home, demand has surged for bigger-ticket items such as computers and home fitness machines.

The National Retail Federation - pointing to optimism over Covid-19 vaccines, a strong stock market and disposable income that normally would have gone to travel or entertainment - projects a 2020 jump of between 3.6 per cent and 5.2 per cent in overall holiday sales from last year.

Meanwhile, the sparse crowds and none of the stampedes of holidays past at physical stores have prompted some retail watchers to refer to Black Friday as Blase Friday.

The sluggish in-person traffic reported in 2019 is expected to thin out further this year, as mall-wary shoppers move on from traditional midnight doorbusters to digital deals.

Consumer visits to physical stores in the US declined by 52 per cent on Black Friday compared with a year ago due to Covid-19 and social distancing requirements, according to preliminary data from Sensormatic Solutions.

On Thanksgiving Day, foot traffic to stores plunged by 95 per cent from a year ago. Many well-known retailers chose to close and deals are being spread throughout the season, said Mr Brian Field, Sensormatic's senior director of global retail consulting.

States that restricted family gatherings have seen higher growth in online shopping compared with states with less restrictions, Adobe said.

Globally, online revenue reached US$62.2 billion, up 30 per cent from a year ago, said American cloud-based software firm Salesforce. Top categories globally were apparel and accessories, health and beauty, and home and garden, Shopify said in a statement.

Facing an influx of online orders, retailers are sourcing delivery services through companies such as Uber, Lyft and Postmates to help expand their shipping capacity, said Mr Rob Garf, Salesforce's vice-president of strategy and insights.

A shift to more e-commerce was already happening, but the Covid-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated the timeline. From kerbside pick-up to video chats with stylists, Black Friday this year was more digital than analysts would have predicted a year ago.

The changing landscape also gave retailers the opportunity this year to yank the pivotal holiday season forward.

"Black Friday became Black November; now it's Black October and Black November," said Mr Doug Stephens, founder of consulting firm Retail Prophet. "Soon, we'll be looking at a Black Quarter."

Malls are approaching the holiday season much differently this year. At a mall in Kentucky, where indoor dining is restricted, a health-inspector approved tent was set up in the parking lot. Santa sits behind plexiglass and, of course, there is no sitting on his lap.

Some stores are turning to unusual strategies to make a sale.

Chico's, for instance, is using video calls. Store employees are reaching out to clients virtually and through the apparel seller's digital tools such as Style Connect to show them new shoes and jackets. In one instance, it resulted in a US$2,000 sale.

"It's another way of reaching out to customers, especially for the Black Friday weekend and going for customers who aren't comfortable to go into a store," chief executive Molly Langenstein said.

Over in Europe, Black Friday this year has been a complicated affair.

With full and partial lockdowns still under way in many European countries, including England, many shops are not open. That means most Black Friday promotions are online only, presenting a logistical challenge for many retailers which have to simultaneously cope with increased online traffic while preparing to reopen stores in December post-lockdowns.

Many of Europe's retailers have offered promotions throughout all of November rather than on Black Friday itself in a bid to spread out the demand. Others, including Marks & Spencer Group and Next, are not participating in Black Friday this year at all, arguing they offer good value all year round.

Barclaycard Payments, which says it processes nearly £1 out of every £3 spent in the United Kingdom, said the volume of payments there was down 13.2 per cent as of 9am local time on Black Friday.

In France, Black Friday has taken on a political tone with small shopkeepers complaining that government-mandated store closures are gifting market share to The fallout has resulted in Amazon and some of France's biggest retailers agreeing to delay Black Friday until all stores, including small operators, have reopened next month.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.