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News / Business / Clark County Business

Clark County merchants flip tactics to avoid holiday flop

Amid pandemic, businesses downplay Black Friday, beef up e-commerce capacity, cater to change in shopping habits

By Will Campbell, Columbian Associate Editor
Published: November 22, 2020, 6:05am
4 Photos
Vancouver resident Tracy Sand wears a protective face mask while browsing through the wide selection at Vintage Books. The store allows a maximum of 10 people in the store at any time.
Vancouver resident Tracy Sand wears a protective face mask while browsing through the wide selection at Vintage Books. The store allows a maximum of 10 people in the store at any time. (Amanda Cowan/ The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Pam Edwards loves the hubbub of the holiday season, and a big part of that is strolling through stores decorated with the festive sights, sounds and smells of Christmas.

“I like to see it in person,” said the Vancouver native who works as a psychiatrist and lives in Scappoose, Ore.

Last year, Edwards did about 80 percent of her gift shopping in person and 20 percent online. But with the pandemic in full swing, that’s no longer the case.

“It’s probably flip-flopped,” she said.

Edwards is far from unusual in this strangest of holiday shopping seasons. A Washington State University study released Tuesday shows that people are losing interest in Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Instead, they’re shopping online early in case manufacturers and shipping companies can’t keep up with last-minute demand.

“This enthusiasm for those shopping days is really decreasing,” said Professor Joan Giese, who works at the Tri-Cities campus of WSU.

The study, which polled about 1,700 Pacific Northwest shoppers, also showed that the digital-shopping behaviors aren’t permanent; people miss shopping in stores.

“Consumers love in-store shopping for inspiration — to be able to walk around and get ideas that they wouldn’t be exposed to,” said Giese. “Retailers curate ideas. Consumers miss that for inspiration.”

The study showed that 63 percent of respondents said they plan to avoid travel during the holidays. More targeted data from the Portland-Vancouver area showed almost 70 percent said they would avoid all travel.

A tale of two companies

Two types of retailers see the holidays through a different lens this year: traditional brick-and-mortar-based stores and digitally based retailers. Most of Clark County’s stores fall into the traditional in-person shopping category, but most have tried to adapt. That leaves a lot of unknowns for this year’s online sales.

At Vintage Books, 6613 E. Mill Plain Blvd., owner Becky Milner is gearing up for an online-focused holiday season. She has put more work into her website to offer books and other gifts, but she’s also sticking to the classic in-person shopping experience with 10 people allowed in the store at any given time.

“Just to have a break in the day where people can go hide in the corner — this is a place for people to have this sanctuary,” she said.

Some of Vintage Books’ customers aren’t interested in online shopping, so they’ll call the store to place an order. Those opportunities for customer service are where Vintage Books can offer more, Milner said.

“A number of our customers don’t have computers or aren’t on one,” she said. “A lot of people are older and want it really simple. They’ll call and say they are looking for this and that: ‘I want something for a 14-year-old boy,’ and we say ‘OK.’ Concierge — a couple of employees love to do that.”

About 20 percent of Vintage Books’ yearly sales come during the holidays, but Milner said she’s unsure if that trend will bear out this year.

The bookstore’s website, like many local retailers with a new or small website, face a highly competitive online environment. The average person in Vancouver searching for a specific book is going to look to bigger, international sellers first.

Whether there’s a pandemic or not, the WSU study found that 71 percent of respondents said shopping in-person is worth it to help local businesses stay open.

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The digitally focused holiday season is a different world for Vancouver-based Slumberkins, which depends on online sales and doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar presence.

“Feel lucky through these times that that’s just who we are,” said Kelly Oriard, co-founder and co-CEO of Slumberkins.

The 5-year-old company is seeing 150 percent revenue growth this year, and it draws about a third of its yearly revenue during the holidays. The company’s products hit a sweet spot during the pandemic by offering stuffed animals that pair with books to deal with emotional hardships.

“We feel very prepared and excited about this holiday season,” she said. “While this year has been very tough, Slumberkins has been more relevant than ever.”

Mall shopping

At Vancouver Mall, the staff is still preparing for a busy Black Friday, albeit one that might be more subdued than in past years.

The mall’s hours will be extended for the day, mall general manager Tracy Peters said, but shoppers shouldn’t plan on making any late-night visits Thursday evening — the mall will be closed on Thanksgiving.

The mall has been operating on a reduced 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule during the pandemic, and it will be essentially returning to the regular schedule for Black Friday, she said, opening at 8 a.m.

Directional signs throughout the mall will be updated for the holidays, Peters said, including one-way entrances and exits to the overall building and queues outside each retailer. Most stores have added greeters at the door to keep occupancy below the current 25-percent limit.

Occupancy is also limited on the mall promenade, and there are traffic counters at the entrances, but Peters said based on the mall’s traffic during the pandemic, she doesn’t anticipate having to enforce queues at the mall entrances.

“We haven’t even come close to occupancy at this point,” she said.

The pandemic has changed shopper behavior in ways that will likely prevent the sort of huge doorbuster crowds that are traditionally associated with Black Friday, Peters said.

Shoppers have become more deliberate during the pandemic, arriving with specific agendas and moving in and out faster. They’ve also become more distributed, with an increasing number of shoppers visiting on weekdays rather than weekends.

Black Friday is changing in a similar way, and that trend is expected to accelerate this year, according to mall marketing manager Bree Sanchez. Sales are being scheduled throughout the week or even the entire holiday season, rather than concentrated on just Black Friday.

The mall is trying to lean into those trends, and it recently updated its website with a “Shop Now” option that lets visitors search the inventory catalogs for various mall stores to purchase items in advance or create wish lists to help plan mall visits. They can also book appointments and order food to go.

About 70 percent of the mall’s retailers are on the list, Sanchez said, with the goal of including all retailers by early next year and eventually adding functionality so shoppers can put products from multiple retailers into a single digital checkout cart.

The traditional Black Friday arrival of Santa will still happen at the Vancouver Mall this year, Sanchez said, although the Santa set will be reconfigured to prohibit any direct contact and maintain 6-foot separation distances.

Closures stemming from the pandemic have affected nearly all retail sectors this year, Peters said, but the mall has seen steady growth in customer traffic since the early months. An additional federal stimulus package could provide a further boost for holiday shopping, she said — if it arrives in time.

“A well-timed influx of cash could certainly help families and retailers alike,” she said.