COVID-19 is changing holiday shopping—here’s how to adapt

The holidays are upon us! And like everything else in this uncertainty-packed year, they’re going to look a lot different than bustling Black Fridays and festively crowded events. Since holiday shopping season sales represent an average 19% of annual retail sales, it’s crucial for many small business owners to find a way to adapt

But what exactly will the 2020 holiday shopping season look like? And how should you tailor your strategies to fit the mold? 

According to a Google survey, half of US shoppers said the pandemic will affect their shopping behavior this year—and more than a third say they don’t plan to do any in-store Black Friday shopping at all. 

However, not all the percentages are disheartening. A whopping 66% of shoppers said they plan to shop more at local small businesses. Seventy-five percent said they would place more online orders than they normally would. And 70% said they will shop early this year to avoid large crowds. 

Clearly, holiday shopping sales are expected to be unique. So your strategy should be as well. We looked at what a few big box companies, as well as local businesses, are changing up this year to provide helpful tips on how to adapt and make the most of this unique holiday season. 

Start your holiday shopping season early 

Big businesses and department stores are listening to the numbers and ramping up the 2020 holiday shopping season earlier than normal. Amazon recently announced the early release of Black Friday deals—possibly even weeks ahead of Thanksgiving day.

But they aren’t alone in their early start date. Home Depot also announced that their holiday sales will begin on November 8, and Target, Walmart, and Best Buy started as early as October 13. 

Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control issued guidance on holiday shopping and classified “shopping at crowded stores just before, on or after Thanksgiving” as a higher-risk activity to avoid during the season. 

Keep things safe and give customers more time to avoid crowds while taking part in your special sales by launching them sooner than other years. Let your existing customers know about the earlier start dates on social media, on your website, and with signage at your location. 

Keep providing alternative “shoptions”

You’ve likely spent this year trying to find new ways to keep your revenue stream flowing amidst business closures and social distancing regulations. If you’ve implemented alternative shopping options (or “shoptions”) like curbside pickup or online events, keep them going—they’ll likely pay off in the next few months.

Curbside pickup, online sales

According to the previously mentioned Google survey, 47% of shoppers said they plan to utilize curbside pickup options to procure their holiday goods this year. Michael Herrman owns New Hampshire’s oldest book shop, Gibson’s Bookstore. He’s planning a larger online presence this season, along with curbside pickup. 

“I think it keeps crowds from being in the store at the same time to mitigate the risk,” Gibson said. “We’re going to offer every opportunity to accommodate as many people as we can. Our main goal is to get to the other side with everybody healthy in the store and still in good shape financially.” 

Planning for an influx in online shopping means you need to make your e-commerce marketing effective and ready for the boost in sales. Here is a great e-commerce marketing guide to help you ensure you’ve got everything you need to reap the benefits of a larger online holiday season. 

Reservations, specialized bundles

Arkansas-based eatery/retail store/event space Mule Kick is encouraging crowds to stay safe this year by focusing on more reservations and offering bundles for customers to host small get-togethers at home for the holidays instead. 

“We will be moving more to reservations and keeping up the sanitization ritual that we have begun. We are going to do a bigger Facebook push to encourage our customers to pick up their orders, host any friends in their homes and minimize their time out,” owner Christy Ouei said. “My plan is to offer bundles of food: maybe 2 pizzas, an app, a dessert and craft beer.” 

Solutions like this are a great way to keep your revenue flowing while also encouraging consumers to quite literally stay “home for the holidays.” 

Virtual retail shopping 

A reported 53% of shoppers said they have tried out new types of shopping formats since the pandemic, and retail industry storefronts like the Brooks Collection in Tennessee are capitalizing on this new, safe trend for the holidays by posting photos of their offerings on their social media pages and conducting virtual FaceTime shopping sessions with owner Watty Brooks Hall.

Hall said connecting with her customers virtually and texting them any items they see in the store during the appointment has kept her store alive during the pandemic—even without selling any items online.

“We deliver, we ship, we do curbside,” she told USA Today. “It’s just trying to keep a small business alive is what it boils down to.”

In-store shopping appointments

You don’t have to run a restaurant to take advantage of a  reservation-style strategy. Target recently announced they’ll continue to limit the number of guests in stores, but are now allowing customers to reserve a spot if there is a line. Customers can visit this site to check their location and “save their spot” if there’s a wait at the store. 

While your store may not be as gigantic as Target and require reservations for spots in line, it’s not a bad idea to set up a shopping appointment system online so customers can rest assured that there won’t be too many people crowding around them while they peruse your goods. 

Gibson’s Bookstore takes shopping appointments a step further by offering them exclusively to customers who are over 60 or have underlying medical conditions. 

“If you are over 60 or have an underlying medical condition, we encourage you to shop from home and let us ship to you, or have us hold items for curbside pickup,” their website reads. “But you are also welcome to schedule a private shopping experience in our bookstore.  Call or email the store to set something up outside of regular hours.”

Take it outdoors this holiday shopping season

Many shoppers are staying home this year. But others will still crave the holiday shopping experience and will be looking for safe ways to partake. 

Outdoor shopping

Moving even just a few feet outside your doors will make customers feel safer knowing they have more room. Host a popup event near your location, or better yet, check to see if there are any outdoor shopping events hosted by your city that you can participate in to attract customers who might not otherwise be familiar with your business. 

Enhanced window shopping 

Holiday window shopping has always been a popular pastime, but the forced ingenuity brought on by COVID-19 regulations evolved the leisurely activity into an actionable, actual form of shopping: “phygital” purchases. 


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Lone Design Club in London launched a “shoppable window” that showcases popular items like normal window displays, but this one has a twist. It’s equipped with a QR code that allows the shopper to actually purchase the item. They’re also led to a website where they can sign up for 1-on-1 shopping appointments and other activities. 

Don’t be intimidated by venturing into the world of QR codes this holiday shopping season. They’re simple and quick to set up. Get started with one of these easy-to-use generators: 

Drive-thru events 

Add a bit of excitement in these not-so-exciting quarantine times. Provide a safe event that customers (and potential customers) can enjoy from the safety of their vehicles. 

Gibson’s Bookstore, whose COVID strategy is seemingly diverse and efficient, is hosting events throughout the month of November. Many of their events are virtual readings. But one involves a drive-thru event promoting the latest “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book. 

The description of the event on their website reads:

“Drive your carload of fans through several pool party themed activity tents! End with Jeff Kinney himself handing you a signed copy of The Deep End and posing with your car for a photo!”

Drive-thru events are a unique way to bring traffic to your business and maintain relevancy through the holiday season. Create a holiday-themed event, or even one tailored to your audience, to add a little more joy to the season. 

Outdoor experiences 

If you have space outside of your brick-and-mortar establishment for those spending the day shopping, make the most of it! Consider implementing a few outdoor heaters and creating a “cafe” experience during November and December that allows them to maintain their distance in a less risky environment. 

Note: Outdoor heaters are the new toilet paper. They’re difficult to procure right now due to high demand brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Here are a few sites that currently have different types of commercial heaters in stock: 

If you have even more space, go bigger by turning your open area into a festive holiday market! Take a little inspiration from the many awe-inspiring holiday markets in Europe that create a memorable experience for visitors with food, decor, and maybe even a visit from Santa. 


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Providing a uniquely wonderful, holiday-focused activity will create a buzz around your business. It will also prompt eager members of your community to participate, no matter how cold it is outside. You can even start an annual tradition and cement your business—and other businesses that want to participate—as local staples. 


Regardless of how you shake things up this holiday shopping season, keep a pulse on consumer behavior in your area. You don’t have to do anything extravagant or expensive. But giving your loyal customers and potential patrons peace of mind that you’re doing your best to support their safety will give you the best opportunity for a successful holiday season.

If you’re looking for more resources to support your small business during this holiday shopping season, visit our resources for small businesses. 

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