© Reuters. Shoppers wait in line outside a Bath and Body Works retail store, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Brooklyn, New York

By Melissa Fares

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Many U.S. holiday shoppers, wary of entering stores during the latest surge of COVID-19, went from their computers, phones and other devices to their cars on the Saturday before Christmas to make last-minute gift purchases and then drive to the store to pick them up.

Super Saturday is traditionally the busiest day of the year for holiday purchases, and this year online retail has been extra busy. But news reports about high-priority vaccine shipments have many Americans fretting that gift deliveries could be delayed this week.

“The lines have gone from waiting to get inside the store to waiting to get your product brought outside the store,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry adviser at NPD Group. “That’s what you’ll see as the day goes on.”

U.S. retailers are expected to ring in record sales, with over 150 million American shoppers slated to buy holiday gifts Saturday online or in-store, up by more than 2 million from last year, the National Retail Federation said on Thursday.

While threats of coronavirus cases spiking in some regions across the country kept shopping foot traffic lower, last minute shoppers still trekked to retail locations to avoid shipping delays.

Elyse R., 31, found herself picking up the facial massage tool she ordered for her sister curbside at the entrance of Nordstrom (NYSE:)’s flagship store in Manhattan on Saturday.

“It wasn’t going to arrive in time,” she said, referring to the online gift order. “I popped into another store and now I’m going to go home.”

To meet the demand, the Nordstrom location at the King of Prussia mall converted its men’s shoe department into a buy-online and pick-up in store area, said Bill Park, a partner at Deloitte & Touche LP.

RECORD SALES

Curbside business contributed greatly to the traffic at big retail chains including Walmart (NYSE:) and Target (NYSE:) on Saturday, according to three retail analysts making checks in Miami, New York and Chicago.

Those who had not already ordered for pickup were mercenary in their approach and would “pop in and out, grabbing the one or two gifts they already knew they wanted,” Park said.

Many retailers have clocked record digital sales during the pandemic, overwhelming traditional shipping companies including FedEx (NYSE:), UPS and the USPS. Vaccine shipments are a priority now, and this week, delivery drivers in the Northeast have had to contend with a major snowstorm.

Retail experts said the well-publicized shipping crunch has many consumers in the driver’s seat themselves.

“Because so many people are shopping online and can’t rely on delivery … people are going to get nervous and do more buy-online-pick-up-in-store or curbside,” said Amy Shulman, global head of professional services at retail data firm Sensormatic Solutions.

Department stores like Nordstrom and J.C. Penney are dangling perks such as free gift wrapping and extra discounts for those who “click and collect” online orders.

“The goal, even with pickup, is to get you in the store,” NPD’s Cohen said. “If I can get you in, I have a chance.”

Some say this approach is at odds with messages from public health officials urging people to stay home and stop the spread of COVID-19. Retailers have responded by spelling out the safety measures they have taken.

Craig Johnson, president at retail consultancy Customer Growth Partners, expects people to spend $36.1 billion this year on Super Saturday, up from $34.4 billion last year. This estimate includes in-store and online purchases but excludes sales at gas stations, restaurants and automobile dealers.

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2020-12-19