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Orange Is the New Black (Craig Douglass On Consumers)

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With apologies to author Piper Kerman, the Netflix comedy-drama’s title sums up this year’s holiday retail experience.

As the celebratory color spanning Halloween to Thanksgiving, orange-tinted retail promotions were designed to build momentum for major holiday sales, shifting colors from orange to red and green with Black Friday, and including shop local’s Small Business Saturday and online sales’ Cyber Monday. Not so this year. And maybe never again.

While the daily sales strategy once focused on post-Thanksgiving markdowns, the whole of November was rife with price reductions, including sales tax and shipping incentives.

Did this shift in the retail color and calendar occur due to the pandemic alone? We believe, as does Scott Galloway in his book “Post Corona,” that the pandemic has not created these types of changes but has uncovered them and accelerated trends.

Technology creates new types of transactions then accelerates demand while also fulfilling and satisfying that demand. One need only look at Amazon and its explosive growth.

While leading the trend and capitalizing on it, Amazon is hardly an outlier. Retailers from mom-and-pop stores to car dealers and big-box chains have adopted the model. If ignored, a going concern could be gone for good.

Now there are and have been, due to the pandemic, significant alterations to our normal patterns. And well there should be, to protect each of us as we protect all of us. The surge in virus-related cases and deaths just during the past month has warranted even more caution and changes in behavior.

That behavior is showing up online. But new technology — witnessed, for instance, in the volume and need for online retailers to meet the demand in their particular industry with more hires. You may have seen eye-popping news lately that Amazon is hiring 1,400 a day as it bets that increased online shopping will not be temporary. Amazon increased its full- and part-time employees by more than 427,000 between January and October, providing jobs now for 1.2 million workers worldwide. Others with significant presence online have done the same.

And the pay? Walmart, Target and Best Buy have increased hourly wages to $15, a goal that progressive politicians promised during the recent campaign. A safe declaration.

So, it should go without saying, foot traffic at retailers has been markedly diminished due to pandemic fears. The question becomes, will brick-and-mortar retailers see bodies in the stores once vaccinations begin? Will Fourth of July summer sales (the Fourth is on a Sunday in 2021) welcome a return to filled parking lots as vaccinated shoppers feel safer and freer?

While we don’t yet know the answers, we do believe shopping patterns of consumers, which have been steadily bifurcated between in-store and online options, have now been kicked into fast-forward. The 2020 shift has been abrupt. And the current holiday period is only a portent.

To that point, Reuters in a Nov. 27 news piece quoted Melissa Bloss of Rapid City, South Dakota. Bloss stated she plans to do all her shopping online, adding, “Most companies have been having sales throughout the month [of November]. I really don’t have a need to rush out when I can get the same deal a week later.”

We must, however, be cautious in our predictions. While shopping habits obviously have changed, and the pandemic has accelerated the further development and use of existing technologies, other social norms may return after a reasonable period of effective vaccinations.

History teaches that the 1918 virus did not have lingering effects on human behavior, while the decade-long Great Depression did. Historians point to the duration of each crisis. The longer it lasts, the more ingrained changes become.

What did occur in both of the above examples was a recognition of the importance of truth-telling, of empowering citizenry with facts. And today, it is reasonable to accept that a greater and earlier understanding of the truth of the threat posed by COVID-19 could have lessened its impact, and its upheavals.

Craig Douglass serves as executive director of the Regional Recycling & Waste Reduction District in Pulaski County.
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