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12 tips for Black Friday fanatics looking to navigate pandemic holiday shopping

In a normal year, advice for Black Friday shoppers might include tips like: “Bring a chair to use as you wait for the store to open” or “Wear running shoes for when the doors open and the scramble for deals begins.”

Naturally, the Black Friday game plan looks a little different in 2020, thanks to COVID-19.

Where are the deeper discounts and what might be harder to find because of the pandemic?

How can shoppers find bargains without exposing themselves to the virus?

You’ll want to study up before hitting the stores this holiday season. Here are 12 tips to help you prepare.

1. Buy gifts early

Last-minute shopping may be an unplanned tradition for many, but sticking with the procrastination strategy could come back to bite you this year.

Why? It comes down to how the pandemic affects supply chains.

When the pandemic is at its worst, it can halt production of goods in countries around the world. The good news is, China and much of Asia aren’t seeing the surge in cases they had earlier in 2020 – which is where many high-demand products are made, said Ravi Anupindi, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business who specializes in supply chains.

Production ramped back up in April for most suppliers in China once the pandemic was under control, Anupindi said.

“The companies have had enough time since March to plan for this,” Anupindi said.

The problem now may not be that goods aren’t being made, but that it’s more difficult to ship them to the U.S., Anupindi said.

Shipping companies and warehouses typically hire loads of temporary workers during the holiday season to help handle demand. But as many shy away from higher-risk jobs and workers are forced into quarantine with COVID-19 or just want to avoid exposure, the supply of workers could take a hit.

“As this pandemic is surging, peoples’ ability to come to work will be problematic,” Anupindi said.

In turn, stores that didn’t order early could be short stocked. And people who order items online, last-minute could end up empty-handed, too.

It only takes one hiccup in the supply chain to delay a product from getting to its final destination.

One example is Lansing’s Mother and Earth Baby Boutique, run by Lynn Ross. She ordered her holiday stock earlier than normal and started receiving products in October – in anticipation of delays.

A few isolated products still haven’t shipped to her store, one of which is being held up in production because the company couldn’t get the product’s tags in time – despite the rest of the product being finished and ready to ship.

“We still have some items that we probably won’t get until it’s too late, so we will probably end up canceling those orders,” Ross said. “But we also anticipated that, so I essentially over-ordered, knowing that we would have some shortages.”

2. Find ways to shop remotely

The pandemic has altered how kids go to school and how people buy food and groceries. Likewise, retailers are rolling out new ways for people to shop remotely this holiday season.

The lines are being blurred between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, said Deb Gabor, a brand expert, author and CEO of Sol Marketing.

“The phenomenon of Cyber Monday almost doesn’t make any sense anymore,” Gabor said. “The origin of Cyber Monday was, whatever crap you couldn’t get on Black Friday, you could get it online starting on Monday.”

Stores like Meijer and Walmart are offering Black Friday deals both online and in person on Friday. They’re also ramping up other options like curbside pickup and home delivery.

Plus, there are companies like Shipt, which can buy products at stores on Black Friday for you and deliver them to your house the same day.

3. You can still buy locally when shopping online

The pandemic has forced many small businesses in Michigan to go beyond the brick-and-mortar store and start selling products online.

Keep that in mind before you instinctively type “Amazon” or “Walmart” into your web search to start online shopping.

“Please look for a Michigan-based business online,” said Michigan Retailers Association spokeswoman Meegan Holland. “We want to keep those dollars circulating in our state’s economy.”

Michigan retailers are hurting this year because of the pandemic. This is the opportunity to help them out and make sure they’ll still be around by the time Black Friday 2021 hits, Holland said.

4. Make a plan, minimize your time in the store

If you still plan to hit the store on Black Friday, do so with a plan in mind. The longer you’re indoors with others, the more likely you are to be infected with COVID-19.

“Minimize your time,” said Adam London, director of the Kent County Health Department. “Get what you’re looking for, get in, get out.”

That could be more doable in 2020 than in the past because of how retailers are spreading out their Black Friday deals. Stores like Meijer are offering the same deals all week long, instead of just Friday. That should reduces crowds by spreading out customer visits, instead of having everybody cram in at once.

Take advantage – go on less conventional days and times to avoid the crowd and reduce your risk of catching or unknowingly spreading the virus.

5. Don’t forget the basics

Unlike Lent or a low-carb diet, there are no cheat days when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Don’t forget the basics of pandemic precautions on Black Friday, London said, like masking, social distancing and hand hygiene.

“If you see people not wearing facial coverings, I would walk out,” London said. “The risk is so high right now and the evidence is so compelling that facial coverings reduce risk, especially in an indoor environment. That’s a risk that I would not take.”

Another red flag for London: Clusters of people. If a store looks particularly packed, he recommends returning later or finding a different way to buy the product you want.

6. Bundle up

In past years, customers bundled up with coats and gloves on Black Friday because they knew they’d be waiting in line outside for the store to open.

This year, people will be waiting outside for different reasons.

Because capacity is limited to 30% at Michigan stores, there may be lines outside to get in. Some stores may also move products outside to the sidewalk or street to allow for more distancing.

With temperatures projected in the mid-40s on Black Friday in Metro Detroit, it would be wise to layer up if you plan to hit the stores.

7. Download Michigan’s COVID-19 app

Black Friday shoppers are likely to come into contact with hundreds of strangers while perusing the deals of the day. Michigan’s new mobile application, called MI COVID Alert, was built for such situations.

The app notifies you of possible coronavirus exposures. If somebody tests positive for COVID-19, they can anonymously share that info in the app. MI COVID Alert will send you a push notification if someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 has reported being near your location for at least 15 minutes.

The app uses randomly generated phone codes and Bluetooth technology instead of GPS location to protect privacy while looking at possible close contacts with other phones.

8. Don’t touch everything in the store

The primary way COVID-19 is transmitted is through inhalation, London said. That’s why masking, distancing and capacity limits are crucial.

But passing the virus by touching surfaces remains a secondary way it spreads, scientists believe, which is why it’s still important to disinfect surfaces and wash hands.

Try not to touch too many things at the store. It’s OK to touch an item if you think you’re going to buy it, Holland said.

Retailers should also be wiping down contact points like door handles, surfaces and credit card machine buttons – and using touchless payment options whenever possible, London said.

9. Check for discounts in the apparel section

Black Friday experts are well versed in the economic concept of “supply and demand.” The pandemic’s effect on supply and demand will shape how deep the discounts will be this holiday season.

One sector where Anupindi – the U of M professor – expects to see lower prices is apparel, due to abundant supply and a decline in demand.

“With people working from home, you’re not going out as much, so you’re not buying as much apparel,” Anupindi said. “So I think there is this overstock of apparel everywhere, so people are going to heavily discount prices there.”

10. Don’t expect huge deals in high-demand electronics

Conversely, people are spending more on electronics during the pandemic, Anupindi said. While there are sure to be many deals on electronics, an increased demand for such products will temper some of the deals out there.

Anything that helps people with remote connections – from laptops to tabletop tripods – will be big sellers this holiday season because of COVID-19, Anupindi said.

He isn’t worried about the supply of electronics, though. Many are made in Asia, much of which returned to normal production schedules after pandemic shutdowns months ago. As noted earlier, the only issues might be transporting the products once they arrive in the U.S.

11. Toy buying will face similar problems to the past

Like electronics, many toys are produced in China and Asia, where production has been churning for months.

A couple key differences with toys – their supply chain is particularly long, Anupindi said. It can take six or seven months to get from factories to consumers.

Also, retailers have a tougher time predicting which toys will become the hot seller of the season. Once a product catches on, it’s usually too late to ramp up production of the toy to meet demand before the holiday season ends.

So with all the changes 2020 is throwing at consumers, there’s still at least one constant – the hottest toys will sell out quick and people shouldn’t procrastinate if they want to be in on the fad.

12. Good luck finding outdoor heaters

One of the toughest finds this holiday season isn’t a hip new toy or the latest tech gadget.

Outdoor heaters are tough to come by, both Anupindi and Gabor said. Many businesses are buying them up to encourage outdoor dining and shopping. Families are purchasing them to heat up their patio as a space to escape this winter – as people are cooped up inside and nervous to go to public places like gyms and stores because of the pandemic.

Anupindi has been trying to find a patio heater for weeks now, himself, with no luck.

“Folks are having trouble tracking those down,” Gabor said. “Outdoor heaters are the new webcam. And the new toilet paper.”

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