Scary Times Begin for Retailers

Halloween marks the start of a difficult string of year-end holidays—each demanding different approaches under COVID-19.

Touchless trick-or-treating and backyard candy hunts. Wearing masks while watching football before an intimate Thanksgiving dinner. Opening Christmas presents with family over Zoom.

The arrival of Halloween this weekend kicks off what leaders across industries expect to be a difficult—if not scary—holiday season. From candymakers to airlines and hotels to clothing manufacturers, the pandemic is forcing leaders to approach Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas in entirely new and different ways. And whether the new approaches will work or not could be the difference between making or losing tens of millions of dollars.

According to the National Retail Federation, for instance, consumer spending on Halloween-related items is expected to fall 8.3% this year to just over $8 billion, down from $8.8 billion last year. Candy and costume makers—for whom Halloween sales are just as vital as Christmas sales are to other retailers—attempted to thwart the decline by running promotions and putting up Halloween displays way back in August in a bid to drum up early sales.

It’s a pattern that Craig Rowley, Korn Ferry’s global practice leader for the consumer sector, expects retailers to repeat for Thanksgiving and Christmas. He says this year, retail leaders are pushing people to shop early, running Christmas promotions for Amazon Prime Day in mid-October and already offering e-commerce discounts and specials. “The mantra in retail this year is to get consumers to buy as much as they can as soon as they can,” says Rowley, noting that across the holidays, the sooner people start shopping, the more they will spend.

The desire to ring up sales early is even more pronounced, given the pandemic’s anticipated impact on Thanksgiving celebrations. With the virus surging in the midwestern United States, the potential for more lockdowns looms large for retail leaders. Many retailers have already announced plans to close on Thanksgiving Day and curtail hours with timed and limited entry on Black Friday.

To be sure, consumer research studies from turkey producers and supermarket chains show plans for Thanksgiving dinners to be limited to immediate family or people living in the same household—a change from tradition that has ramifications for everything from turkey sales to air travel to car rentals. In fact, with travel bans and quarantines in effect, travel and hospitality leaders are not even bothering with trying to encourage more travel through discounts this holiday season, says Radhika Papandreou, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s North America Travel, Hospitality, and Leisure practice. Instead, she says, they are focusing on hunkering down—shoring up their balance sheets, hopefully with some government relief—to get through the winter. “Short-term gains during winter months are not going to make or break travel and hospitality companies at this point,” says Papandreou.

The reluctance to travel over Thanksgiving could lead to work to the advantage of retailers. Denise Kramp, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s North America retail sector leader, says there is optimism among retail leaders that money usually spent on travel over the holidays will convert to sales for them. “The hope is that gifting will be a way to connect with the loved ones we can’t spend time with over the holidays,” says Kramp.