Holiday shopping season has arrived, but is it back?

The pandemic isn’t over yet, but with the help of vaccinations and Covid-19 safety measures, Santa is feeling much better coming to town this year.

Stephen Arnold, president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, a trade group with more than 1,800 members, appeared at just one tree lighting event last year. It was a terrifying time, he said, especially for a group of older men who are often overweight and have diabetes.

But this season, Mr. Arnold that all five of his tree lighting ceremonies are back, including a smashing event he loves at Graceland, Elvis Presley’s estate in Mr. Arnold, Memphis. He plans to participate in more than 200 performances, similar to his pre-pandemic schedule in 2019. Sometimes he can perform from a life-size snow globe like last year, and a significant portion of his events will be held virtually, but it is a world apart from 2020.

“I think almost all of our Santas plan to work a lot more than they did last year, and a much higher percentage, probably 65 to 70 percent of us, will go back to what we think of as some sort of normal schedule,” said Mr. dr. Arnold, 71, said. “I’m trying to prepare for a season of relatively close contact.”

And so it goes as the United States enters a Christmas shopping season that is much more physically present than 2020, but not as carefree as it was prepandemic. People are more comfortable shopping in stores, but the number returning is likely to vary by region and workers will usually wear masks.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was greatly expanded, with more floats and a longer route, although children under 12 were not allowed to participate in the parade itself. Major chains will offer certain festivities, such as champagne bars, which were missing last year. Gift ideas and decorations will take a more prominent place in stores as retailers anticipate more people browsing and planning larger gatherings.

“There’s a lot of energy in doing things,” said Marie Driscoll, director of luxury and fashion at Coresight Research, a consulting and research firm. “Everything that is old is new again.”

But signs of a changed season remain. Many stores that are closed on Thanksgiving and holiday hours at certain malls and chains will be cut, in part due to a national labor shortage. And many people are bracing for a lack of products like popular toys as “supply chain issues” become the refrain of 2021. There are also customers who are staying away from stores, based on new habits adopted during the pandemic or ongoing concerns about the virus, opting to shop online or use pick-up services.

Ms Driscoll said signs of precautionary measures will likely be visible in all stores. “Retailers go out of their way to please everyone, so wear a mask as you see fit, there will be cleansers everywhere, there are self-checkout options to avoid having to queue and wait in line. waiting in line,” she said.

Retail is still recovering from a decline in shoppers last year. In November and December 2020, visitor numbers to department stores fell more than 30 percent from the previous year, according to data from Vince Tibone, a senior analyst at Green Street, a real estate analytics firm. However, that picture appears to be improving: In October, department store visitors dropped 9 percent compared to October 2019, the data shows.

Jeff Gennette, Macy’s chief executive, said in a recent interview that the number of visitors to stores had recovered significantly since 2020, but is down about 19 percent from 2019. The drop is “persistent,” he said, adding that the retailer expected it to improve in 2022.

Tom Nolan, chief executive of Kendra Scott, a fashion jewelry company with 119 locations, said store visits varied by region.

“In the northeast and west coasts, the numbers are not what they are in Texas and the southeast,” he said in an interview. While the chain’s sales were robust compared to 2019 or 2020, he noted that it was a boost to business when customers came in to browse, especially with family and friends.

People are much more likely to make purchases when they’re in a store than when browsing the store’s website, said Meredith Darnall, senior vice president of Brookfield Properties’ retail division, which oversees more than 130 shopping centers. “The ability to touch, see and talk to someone about the product is real. They also have extra sales — you come in for the T-shirt, you probably buy the denim.” What makes in-store purchases even more appealing to retailers, she said, is the fact that return rates are much higher for e-commerce purchases, especially for clothes and shoes.

Many consumers seem to like to shop in person this year. The NPD Group recently surveyed more than 1,000 people about holiday traditions they missed most in 2020 and hoped to return this year. About 36 percent said they missed browsing stores, while 30 percent said they were looking forward to returning to mall shopping and the “Thanksgiving and Black Friday frenzy.”

The experience of shopping changed dramatically last year as many people avoided lingering in stores and were discouraged from touching and testing products. Fitting rooms were closed or restricted in many places. Makeup counters did not offer makeovers or samples of lipstick or perfume. Plastic partitions, hand sanitizer and memories of social distancing punctuated the landscape. Shopper events were downsized or cancelled.

This week, Saks Fifth Avenue unveiled its Christmas window display and 10-story light show at its flagship store in New York. The retailer, which took a break from its annual tradition of closing Fifth Avenue for a musical performance last year, returned this year with a performance by New York City’s Young People’s Chorus and a performance by Michelle Obama. About 22 Nordstrom stores will have “immersive” photo booths.

At the flagship Bloomingdale’s on 59th Street, the store offers fewer events than the more than 400 held in 2019, but far more than in 2020, when the limited activities were kept outdoors. There will be more food and drink for shoppers this season, including champagne and cups of espresso, although more cautious use than in years past. The store hosted a performance by Bebe Rexha when it unveiled its holiday windows this month, but kept it to about 15 minutes and carefully managed capacity and space.

“Had you spoken to me in 2019, we would have had extensive spreads with caterers coming in and pouring in past hors d’oeuvres and champagne,” said Frank Berman, Bloomingdale’s chief marketing officer. Now the food is more likely to be prepackaged and events such as cooking demonstrations have been smaller.

Still, he said, the retailer is seeing a recent surge in tourists and a growing willingness among shoppers to spend time in the store.

“As for Covid, they feel safer, and you see more of that inspiring shopping, people are going to make a day of it in our store,” said Mr Berman. “They’re walking around the store and it’s not about ‘I have to grab this item and get out’.”

There are also significant shifts in what people are buying compared to last year. Dressed clothing and luggage are again popular as people travel and socialize again. And the boom in pet adoption has led to an explosion in clothing for dogs, which are welcome at the store, Mr. Berman said.

The imprint of technology on physical retail has never been greater. Bloomingdale’s still offers dozens of virtual events in addition to in-store activities. Shoppers now expect the ability to see if products are in stock before they go to stores and for employees to email them for free if they’re not available, said Coresight’s Ms. Driscoll.

Nordstrom is one of the retailers that uses space in the front of its stores for shelves dedicated to online takeout, said Ms. Darnall of Brookfield Properties. Curbside pickup continues to be popular in malls and other large retail chains.

As for Santa, Mr. Arnold is busier than ever as virtual visits add to his personal appearances. Some parents prefer it after last year as the experience can be more magical once Santa has been prepared by the parents.

“You have so much information, you get so real and have a real conversation,” he said. ‘Then you stop talking and ask for things, maybe about fairies or reindeer or Mrs Claus and what she’s baking in the kitchen. Every now and then you get a difficult question like, “Can you bring Grandpa back?” and you try to wriggle out of it.”

Yet it is a year of reconstruction.

Arnold’s group, which had more than 2,000 members last year, shrank after many artists unable or unwilling to work in 2020 did not renew their membership. Arnold is confident there will be a solid return next year by the time of the International Santa Celebration event in Atlanta in April, which had been delayed by the pandemic.

“You’ll see the majority of Santas will feel like they’re returning to relatively normal conditions,” he said, adding that he was prepared with his vaccine and a booster. “And most of us smart enough will apply security measures.”

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