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‘We’re so grateful for all the local shopping’

Black Friday offers beacon of hope to area stores

 

By Albert Lea Tribune and The Associated Press

 

It has been a difficult year for many, and the retail industry is no exception. 

Black Friday is offering a small beacon of hope.

In normal times, Black Friday is the busiest shopping day of the year, drawing millions of shoppers eager to get started on their holiday spending.

But these are not normal times: The economy is struggling and crowds are expected to be dramatically diminished as coronavirus cases spike and shoppers do more of their purchases online.

Many retailers closed their doors on Thanksgiving Day but are beefing up their safety protocols to reassure wary customers that they can still come back the next day. For those who can’t be reassured, stores are moving their doorbuster deals online and ramping up curbside pickup options as a last grasp at sales before the year ends and they head into the dark days of winter with the pandemic still raging.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled shopping in crowded stores during the holidays a “higher risk” activity and said people should limit any in-person shopping, including at supermarkets.

Instead, the health agency recommends shopping online, visiting outdoor markets or using curbside pickup, where workers bring orders to shoppers in the parking lot.

Many local businesses have adapted to the changing recommendations amid the pandemic, including offering online shopping, curbside pickup, private shopping appointments as well as virtual shopping appointments, and shipping or delivery options in addition to in-person shopping. Area businesses have stepped up their cleaning protocols as well and often have hand sanitizer available for customers.

Numerous local business owners were hopeful after seeing strong community support Friday.

“We’re so grateful for all the local shopping that our community has been doing. We’ve had a great week so far and Black Friday has been busy as well, with lots of shoppers looking for gift ideas, finding bargains and just enjoying the fun of shopping,” said Angela Moller, who co-owns The Homestead Boutique, 415 E. William St. in Albert Lea, with her husband, Matt. “We’re also hearing from many at-home shoppers as well and it feels really good to help serve them safely.”

Customers shop Friday at The Homestead Boutique in Albert Lea. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

“Black Friday is still critical,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “No retailer wants it to be tarnished. It’s still vital to get their consumers spending and get consumers into the holiday mood.”

Kellie Steele saw positive results Friday in her businesses as well. Steele owns downtown Albert Lea stores Ellen & Jane Boutique, 220 W. Clark St., and EJ’s Mercantile, 102 W. Clark St.

“Black Friday shopping is going well. People are respectful and maintaining social distancing and really looking out after each other,” she said. “(I’m) very humbled to see our community supporting the small shop owners.”

The day after Thanksgiving has been losing its luster as the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season for the past several years, with more stores offering holiday discounts throughout the month. Still, Black Friday has remained the busiest day of the year, according to ShopperTrak, and is expected to hold that title again this year.

Katelyn Kehret, owner of Gypsy K Consignment inside of Northbridge Mall, 2578 Bridge. Ave. in Albert Lea, said when she opened her store at 10 a.m. Friday customers were already lining up at the gate.

“I look forward to this day every year. Today marks six years here in Albert Lea at the Northbridge Mall,” Kehret said. “I came to Albert Lea from Austin once our mall was sold and I needed to relocate my business, fast. So I came over to Albert Lea and opened up on Black Friday and it was by far the best decision I ever made. We love Albert Lea and our community.”

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, has taken an optimistic view, predicting that shoppers will be looking for reasons to celebrate. The trade group expects sales for the November and December period to increase between 3.6% and 5.2% over 2019 compared with a 4% increase the year before. Holiday sales have averaged gains of 3.5% over the past five years.

“After all they’ve been through, we think there’s going to be a psychological factor that they owe it to themselves and their families to have a better-than-normal holiday,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz. “There are risks to the economy if the virus continues to spread, but as long as consumers remain confident and upbeat, they will spend for the holiday season.”

Local efforts by the Albert Lea Convention and Visitors Bureau, Albert Lea Main Street Program, Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce and Albert Lea Economic Development Agency  to encourage supporting local businesses have been amplified throughout the pandemic. For the holiday shopping season, a bingo game is now available for people to participate in to win prizes. Participants in the game can either pickup a bingo card from Gypsy K Consignment, The Funky Zebras, Big Dream Organics or EJ’s Mercantile, or print one off from www.explorealbertlea.com or from the organizations’ Facebook pages.

Bingo squares can be marked off from doing things such as purchasing something local, ordering takeout from a local restaurant, writing a review on Facebook or sharing a business’s post on social media. The game has been designed so that people can still win without having to go out in person if they’re not able to or aren’t comfortable doing so, and goes through Dec. 10.