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Virtual Santa visits? Holiday shopping will look different this year as Maryland retailers change tactics amid coronavirus

Diane Meyer, the owner of the Pandora jewelry store in The Mall in Columbia, talks about holiday shopping during the pandemic.

Forget Black Friday. Never mind lining up to visit Santa.

Retailers and malls in Maryland and nationwide don’t want shoppers piling into stores or crowding halls and food courts this holiday season.

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Instead, doorbuster sales will trickle out over weeks, many of them offered online. Malls are offering virtual Santa visits. And shoppers will be able to buy most gifts without stepping foot in a store.

Holiday shopping will go on even in a pandemic, but some traditions appear to be going by the wayside. As this crucial season for businesses approaches and COVID-19 cases in Maryland and elsewhere are rising, retailers are looking for ways to safely attract and accommodate shoppers who may be fearful and hurting financially.

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“We’re looking at this so differently than we’ve ever needed to look at the holiday season before,” said Diane Meyer, owner of Pandora jewelry stores in The Mall in Columbia and The Gallery in downtown Baltimore.

Retailers can look to end-of-year holiday sales as a make-or-break proposition. That’s especially true this year as the nation wrestles with a deadly pandemic that, due to health-related shutdowns and restrictions, shuttered many stores and malls and caused high unemployment. Many businesses are barely hanging on.

Whether consumers spend at normal holiday levels will depend how comfortable they feel both with their finances and health as the spread of the virus ebbs and flows, experts said.

Consumers might hold back on spending given uncertainty over employment, additional shutdowns, the fate of another federal coronavirus aid package and the impact of the presidential election on the economy. Or they might have pent-up money to spend after staying home and putting off travel, dining out and other experiences.

Either way, most experts expect huge growth in online buying, with delivery at home, curbside or in store, as more people look for ways to spend less time in stores and avoid crowds.

“A bunch of these trends were happening before COVID,” said Aaron Cheris, head of the America’s Retail practice at Bain & Co., a Boston-based consulting firm. “COVID will just make them happen faster.”

Nearly a third fewer consumers expect to shop in stores this season, compared with 2019, with just 60% planning to shop in stores, a consumer survey by DealAid found.

But even smaller numbers will likely be more than many retailers have seen for much of the year. And as shifting health restrictions change the numbers of people allowed in stores across the state, retailers say they’re walking a fine line between trying to pull in enough business and doing so safely.

The prospect of holiday crowds descending on malls — with capacity limits — got officials of Brookfield Properties, which operates The Mall in Columbia, Mondawmin Mall, White Marsh Mall, Towson Town Center and The Gallery at Harborplace, thinking about ways to better control customer flows.

Brookfield launched a free app called “Spot Holder” for shoppers and tenants in 95 of its malls for the holiday months to ease the frustration of long waits in lines outside stores.

So far, 500 stores have signed up, with another 500 likely to join, said Jeff Cloud, director of innovation for New York-based Brookfield. The app lets stores at capacity take waiting shoppers' names and numbers and put them on a virtual waitlist. Customers can then track their place in line while shopping elsewhere and be notified by phone when it’s time to return. Store appointments also can be set ahead of time.

After stores reopened from early coronavirus-related closures, “people were waiting 30 minutes, 60 minutes, 90 minutes to get into stores,” Cloud said. “It’s unproductive and causes people to have a poor shopping experience.”

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During past Black Fridays, lines would form all day long outside Meyer’s Pandora stores in Baltimore and Columbia. This holiday season, she expects consumers will still want in-store service but she won’t be able to accommodate them all at once. She’s hoping to use Brookfield’s Spot Holder app and encourage shoppers to book appointments ahead of time, even some outside of normal mall hours.

“We are seeing people that want to come in to see the merchandise,” Meyer said. “They want to come in and be taken care of.”

While joining a virtual waitlist or making an appointment takes away some of the spontaneity of a shopping trip, “this is part of how we’re dealing with COVID,” she said.

She’s also promoting curbside delivery for online orders.

This year, Pandora is spreading deals typically reserved for Black Friday throughout the month, running a 35% off sale in stores and online every Friday in November. It’s a first for the jewelry chain.

Pandora also has set up 75 holiday pop-up shops outside its flagship stores as a way for shoppers to buy some of the most popular items quickly or pick up online purchases with limited contact.

Sid Keswani, president of Baltimore-based Pandora North America, said he expects holiday shopping to span a longer than usual period.

DealAid’s consumer survey shows that most shoppers plan to buy before Thanksgiving and throughout December, with just 6.5% planning to shop on Black Friday itself.

“With Black Friday shopping models shifting to accommodate social distancing mandates, we’re seeing these deals span an unprecedented amount of time in the month of November," Keswani said.

Overall, he said he expects a “general decline” in foot traffic, but by spreading out Black Friday deals, “we are aiming to avoid large crowds, and the extended sale allows us to smooth out traffic over multiple weeks."

Other retailers have similar plans. Walmart calls its promotion “Black Friday Deals for Days,” three separate events ending with online sales at 7 p.m. the night before Thanksgiving and more deals in stores starting at 5 a.m. on Black Friday, when customers will be counted as they enter to reduce congestion.

Splitting Black Friday into three events will be “safer and more manageable for both our customers and our associates,” said Scott McCall, Walmart’s chief merchandising officer.

This year, Brookfield plans to close its malls on Thanksgiving, as many retailers have opted to do amid the pandemic, and will open on Black Friday at 7 a.m. — which is not as early as it has opened in the past on the day after Thanksgiving.

Dimple Patel, store manager at Exclusive, a mens' clothing store at Mondawmin Mall, works on displays in the store. November 4, 2020
Dimple Patel, store manager at Exclusive, a mens' clothing store at Mondawmin Mall, works on displays in the store. November 4, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

The malls also have reserved spaces near entrances for use by customers getting curbside pickup from any stores offering the service. Kohl’s, too, is betting heavily on curbside pickup, and the discount department store doubled the number of drive-up spaces at its stores to support increased demand.

Even mall Santas are making accommodations. While malls still are offering photos with Santa, with the use of face masks and other precautions, Brookfield’s malls also will offer virtual visits through JingleRing Live. The live video calls are personalized for each child by ethnicity, faith and language.

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Retailers agree that it’s more difficult than ever to predict how business will turn out this year.

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Dimple Patel, manager of men’s apparel shops Exclusive and Turning Point Man in Mondawmin Mall, believes it will take more than a respite from COVID-19 to bring shoppers back.

“People are depending on the stimulus money,” especially those who live in West Baltimore neighborhoods around the shopping center, Patel said.

“This mall is just like a ghost town right now. If they get the stimulus money, they’re going to come spend the money. No stimulus money, looks like they’re not going to spend money."

Patel’s planning sales for Black Friday, but she wondered: “Are we going to have a crowd in the mall? We don’t know.”

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