Feature: COVID-19 accelerates U.S. shift to digital economy


by Matthew Rusling

WASHINGTON, Nov. 26 (Xinhua) -- Yvonne Smith, 40, who works in logistics in the Washington D.C. area, will do her Black Friday shopping mostly online this year.

Part of this is because it's convenient, but she also admits she wants to avoid large crowds.

Her elderly in-laws will visit her for the Thanksgiving holidays, and she does not want to contract the coronavirus and pass it on to them.

"I just want to be careful," she told Xinhua, noting the virus is more dangerous for elderly people.

Black Friday comes the day after Thanksgiving and always features the scene of shopping malls packed with consumers headed for once-a-year big discounts on everything from clothing to perfume to jewelry. It comes a month before Christmas, the biggest gift-giving holiday of the year.

But this year's Black Friday will see a number of changes - the biggest of all being that it comes amid the backdrop of a large-scale shift to the digital economy.

"One of the lasting impacts of this COVID-19 pandemic will be to accelerate the pace of digitization of the U.S. economy, which was already underway before the pandemic began," Desmond Lachman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Xinhua.

Indeed, according to Deloitte's pre-Thanksgiving survey, 57 percent of consumers said they are worried about shopping in retail stores during the holidays due to the coronavirus - an increase from 51 percent in September.

As COVID-19 cases and deaths rise, the pandemic is "driving folks online and changing behavior," said Rod Sides, Deloitte vice chairman and U.S. leader for retail, wholesale and distribution, as reported by CNBC.

And for the first time in Deloitte's poll, more American consumers said they plan to shop online - at 61 percent - than in brick-and-mortar stores, at 54 percent.

Rachael Roth, 69, a retiree in New Jersey, summed up many people's feelings on COVID-19 and retail in the lead up to Black Friday.

"I would rather not go to a store, because of my age," she told Xinhua, adding that she will shop online. Some experts believe the pandemic will have a negative impact on retail sales at the year end.

The recent rise in COVID cases "does not bode well for retail sales towards the end of the year, since the health experts keep warning us of a very dark COVID-19 winter," Lachman said, adding that the end of 2020 could see a rollback of earlier easing of COVID-related restrictions on the economy.

TOUGH TIMES, BUT NOT YET OUT OF THE GAME

But despite rising cases and deaths, retail is not ready to call it quits.

The Wall Street Journal reported last weekend that consumers flocked to malls in several states in a bid to both get ahead of Black Friday foot traffic and to get their shopping done before more COVID restrictions are implemented.

Other U.S. media made similar reports, describing packed shopping malls in U.S. states including Florida, Wisconsin, Texas and elsewhere, as Americans crave some sense of normalcy this holiday season, and going out shopping is a big part of that.

At the same time, the National Retail Federation (NRF) does not expect the virus to impact holiday sales.

The organization predicts a rise of 3.6 percent to 5.2 percent from November and December last year.

The group projects that online sales, which are included in the total figure, will rise 20 percent to 30 percent from a year ago.

According to the NRF, consumers are spending less money on travel, due to coronavirus restrictions. Experts said that has put more money in Americans' pockets to spend on retail.

During a recent conference call, Jeff Gennette, CEO of iconic retailer Macy's, told analysts the company expects to see demand at brick-and-mortar stores come earlier, with less traffic on Black Friday itself.

And despite the pandemic, NRF President and CEO Matt Shay said he expects retail to see a "strong finish" to 2020, he said in a press release.

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