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Holiday shopping

Retailers gear up for season without a playbook

Park Home sales associate Tim Rimmey measures the width of a dining room table for Penny Bush of Altoona. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

With Black Friday just around the corner and the holiday shopping season to follow, merchants and shoppers are facing an uncertain season.

“In a year that has been full of uncertainty, this will be a historic holiday season with no playbook for economists to follow,” said National Retail Federation spokeswoman Mia Weinand. “The 2020 holiday season is going to be different. The COVID-19 pandemic brings new challenges, but also the opportunity to create cherished memories with our closest loved ones. We’ll celebrate old traditions in different ways, and create new traditions as part of our new normal.”

Imports reached an all-time high this summer as retail sales bounced back from the pandemic and merchants replenished inventories and stocked up early for the holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the NRF and Hackett Associates.

“After staying at home this spring, consumers are buying again and retail supply chains are working overtime to keep up with demand,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement. “Nothing about this year is predictable, but retailers are making sure their shelves and warehouses are well-stocked for the holidays. They are also stocking up earlier than usual because they know many consumers will be shopping early this year to avoid crowds and shipping delays. Some holiday merchandise that normally wouldn’t arrive until Halloween is already here.”

Black Friday carries a great deal of uncertainty, said Blair County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Joe Hurd, who has talked to many local retailers.

“Some have been experiencing steady recovery and look forward to ramping up for any opportunity that may become available, not just Black Friday,” Hurd said. “Others have had difficulty maintaining inventory due to the inability to access products. They’re anxious to sell but concerned that suppliers are still struggling. And a small percentage of retailers are not at all optimistic. To them, Black Friday will be “too little, too late.”

Another fairly industry-wide concern among retailers is the attitude of shoppers to resuming in-store visits.

“Will more shop online out of reluctance to go outdoors? Is there less money available to shoppers who may have experienced layoffs?” Hurd asked.

The chamber remains optimistic that retail will rebound.

“The holiday season would be the logical time for that to happen. We plan to ramp up our efforts to promote local business and hope that the ‘Buy Here. Thrive Here.’ message will resonate more emphatically than ever before,” Hurd said.

Mall officials hopeful

Logan Valley Mall officials remain optimistic about the shopping season.

“The pandemic has certainly changed the way our community will approach the holiday season this year, but we’ve always been committed to ensuring that the Logan Valley Mall is a vibrant, safe place for local residents and their families to shop,” said General Manager Dan May. “That is still our main goal. This year will be a little different for us, of course, but we’re optimistic about the holiday shopping season. Despite the reduced hours, our retail employees have been happy with sales at last year’s levels and are looking forward to a great season, as well.”

The mall will be decorated for the holidays.

“We will absolutely be decorating the mall and plan to still offer the holiday train, with a few new restrictions. Santa will still be coming to town, as well, but it will be a no-touch experience,” May said. “Everyone must wear masks inside our center, and we will be cleaning more regularly, as well as monitoring foot traffic to ensure safe distancing.”

Many local merchants are optimistic about the upcoming holiday season.

Retailers optimistic

“You have to be optimistic to be a retailer. If you are not, you should be in a different line of work,” said Todd Lewis, president of Shoe Fly Stores. “I think what we are anticipating is that people might be more interested in practical gifts. Shoes are very practical. People need shoes and you are not wasting money when buying shoes.”

Lewis said it has taken “a long time to get things to feel normal. We are thankful our staff came back and our customers are coming back.

“It was challenging to get the business back into a steady flow,” Lewis said. “it still is a challenge.”

Michael Kranich Jr., president of Kranich’s Jewelers Inc., has a good feeling about the holiday season.

“We are quite optimistic for the upcoming holiday season,” he said. “Sales were brisk all summer long and we believe it will be an outstanding fall quarter. It will be different in the fact that we are operating with masks and social distancing. We are taking great precautions and following (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines. Since we have many customers that may be elderly or have preexisting conditions, we are doing all we can to keep everyone safe.”

The floral industry should do well, according to Andrea Hammel, owner of Peterman’s Flower Shop.

“I am optimistic. We’ve seen a huge increase in residential deliveries. Flowers are a great way to tell people you’re thinking of them. You can’t visit the hospitals and nursing homes — people are leery to let people in,” Hammel said. “We have upgraded our website, that is how people are buying. You have to stay up with your website with new photos, an easy check-out system and have enough variety to give people choices. I am optimistic. People in our industry are saying it will be quite a year for us for the holidays.”

Home improvements

Furniture stores also expected to do well.

“We’ve stayed fairly busy since we re-opened. We hope to keep that going during the holiday season,” said Matt Muccitelli, vice president of Park Home, Duncansville. “People are focusing on home improvements … spending money on fixing up their homes. A lot will hinge if they can get the stimulus package passed, that will play a role on how it goes for a lot of merchants.”

Many of the chain stores have already started their holiday sales.

“With customers starting their shopping earlier than ever this year, the holidays are already underway at Kohl’s and we’re excited to offer a holiday assortment that speaks to how our customers are living today,” Doug Howe, Kohl’s chief merchandising officer said in a statement.

“On top of our strong portfolio of national and proprietary brands, we are leaning into the product categories that are resonating most with our customers, including all things cozy, and comfort, home, active and toys, and adding new brands that will excite and inspire our customers,” Howe said.

“Looking ahead, it will be a holiday season like no other,” Kohl’s CEO Michelle Gass said in a statement. “COVID is changing all aspects of customer expectations, and we are adapting our plans in response. To start with, we’ve made the decision to not be open on Thanksgiving Day, allowing more of our associates to be home with their families.”

Early kickoffs

Target kicked off its holiday season early with Target Deal Days on Oct. 13 and 14.

“This year, in a holiday season unlike any other, we know it’s more important than ever for our guests to get great deals in a convenient and safe shopping environment,” Christina Hennington, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer, said in a statement. “By kicking off our holiday deals earlier than ever, offering Black Friday pricing throughout the full month of November and extending our Price Match Guarantee, we’re letting guests know they don’t need to wait or face the crowds to get the best deals, all with no membership fees required.”

J.C. Penney Co. kicked off holiday shopping in the middle of October.

“It’s especially important to bring personal traditions into focus this holiday season, and we encourage shoppers to rely on J.C. Penney for all they need to make the holidays meaningful and memorable,” Jill Soltau, chief executive officer at J.C. Penney, said in a statement.

“We have been working to secure partnerships with new national brands and to expand our product offerings as part of our efforts to provide compelling merchandise and deliver an engaging shopping experience to our customers,” Soltau said. “Safety remains J.C. Penney’s number one priority and is at the forefront of all our efforts to give our customers the utmost confidence that they can effortlessly and conveniently shop with us in-store and online.”

Special deliveries

Those who will be delivering holiday packages are also geared up for the season.

“FedEx is known for its speed and reliability, but we are entering what is expected to be an unprecedented peak holiday shipping season,” a spokeswoman said. “With the onset of COVID-19, we have been operating at peak levels since March and there is no sign of slowing down. We are working alongside our customers to prepare and deliver the best possible service, but we strongly encourage everyone who plans to do their holiday shopping online to shop and ship early.”

United Parcel Service has geared up with additional hirings.

UPS met additional demands by using expanded weekend operations, and in the second quarter of this year, hiring 39,000 more permanent employees to work in sorting facilities and as drivers, a spokeswoman said.

UPS has also announced it is hiring more than 100,000 seasonal employees to help meet customer needs during the peak holiday season.

The United States Postal Service is also getting ready for its busiest time, which usually begins two weeks before Christmas.

“The postal service plans for the peak holiday season all year. This includes flexing our network to process and deliver the expected mail and package volumes,” spokeswoman Naddia Dhalai said. “Seasonal workers are hired when and where needed, and technology has been expanded to enhance package tracking throughout the USPS processing and transportation networks. Customers should know the deadlines and plan ahead.”

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank can be reached at 814-946-7467.

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