Nov. 23 (UPI) -- As with most things this year, Black Friday shopping won't be very traditional, with retailers expecting more online sales and public health officials advising shoppers to stay home.
In the days and weeks leading up to the United States' biggest shopping day of the year, COVID-19 cases skyrocketed to new records. The spike has led some state and local leaders to order fresh lockdowns and limit indoor capacities for non-essential businesses.
The general consensus among public health officials is that the best way to prevent the virus' spread is to stay away from large crowds, keep 6 feet away from people who aren't in your household and wear face coverings in public -- basically, stay home.
In a list of guidelines for lower-risk holiday activities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that Americans shop "online rather than in person" on Black Friday and the following Monday. It lists shopping in "crowded" stores just before, on or after Thanksgiving as a "higher-risk" activity.
With more than $730.2 billion in sales recorded nationally between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 last year, U.S. retailers depend heavily on holiday shopping each year. Those dollars are even more critical this year when the overall economy is struggling under the weight of job losses and business closings due to the pandemic.
The annual ShopperTrack report, which predicts the busiest shopping days each year, said in October that it expects 2020 holiday sales to be down between 22% and 25% compared to 2019.
The report, though, also predicted that more Americans will spread out their shopping this year instead of going into stores on business weekends or sales days, such as Black Friday.
The National Retail Federation, the world's largest retail trade association, said 42% of shoppers said they started their holiday shopping earlier this year than they typically do. The group said October retail sales this year were up 10.6% year-to-year, an indication of a desire to shop earlier.
According to a survey by the NRF and Prosper Insights & Analytics, however, only 26% of holiday shoppers said they'd completed their shopping by Nov. 9.
And retailers, recognizing the need to keep crowd sizes smaller in post-Thanksgiving shopping, have adjusted Black Friday deals to last for weeks.
"Consumers have welcomed the longer shopping season, where many retailers have chosen to offer deals before and leading up to the traditional Thanksgiving and Black Friday doorbusters," Prosper Executive Vice President of Strategy Phil Rist said. "These additional offerings translate to more options for holiday shoppers in the long run."
"The steady expansion of retail sales is good news against the background of these unusual economic circumstances and climbing virus cases in recent weeks," said Jack Kleinhenz, the NRF's chief economist.
"Early holiday shopping appears to have supported October's increase in sales. The rise in COVID-19 cases continues to be a factor that weighs on consumer perceptions, sentiment and spending and there could be retrenchment if we cannot thwart this latest wave. Nonetheless, retailers are well prepared to safely fulfill holiday shopping lists, and the October results suggest so far, so good."
Many big retailers are spreading their Black Friday deals over a period of weeks this year. Walmart began its "Black Friday Deals for Days" on Nov. 4, Target launched "Black Friday Now" deals the first week of November and Best Buy began offering deals as early as Nov. 5.
The Better Business Bureau said it expects more holiday shopping online this year, and a 35% increase in e-commerce sales over last year.
"I do think online shopping is going to go through the roof and online shopping has been through the roof all 2020," Jason Blankenship, BBB vice president of development, told WGXA-TV in Macon, Ga.
"Everything virtually has just skyrocketed. I know that UPS is preparing for one of their largest Christmas deliveries they've ever had. Everything is pointing to online shopping just being astronomical this year."
For small businesses, Black Friday and Small Business Saturday could be even more critical.
Payroll services company CBIZ said small and midsize businesses have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, with more than 43% reporting a significant or severe impact. Many have seen a "significant" decrease in sales.
According to Yelp's Local Economic Impact Report in September, nearly 100,000 U.S. businesses have permanently closed since the start of the pandemic.
"What I would like to encourage people to do is [shop] the Saturday after Black Friday," Blankenship said.
"While a lot of larger big box places and people with huge web presence, you know can get those deals all November long. Make sure not to forget our small businesses ... on Small Business Saturday. Those people have felt it a whole lot more than anyone else."