The holiday shopping season is here, but is it back?

Evidence of a new Covid-19 variant in South Africa that prompted some countries to reinstate travel restrictions was the latest hurdle to an otherwise upbeat symbolic start to the holiday sales period.

Written by Sapna Maheshwari

Americans more comfortable with in-store shopping were back out in greater force Friday, and battered retailers were more optimistic than they have been at any point since the start of the pandemic, which shuttered stores and wiped out sales.

But looming over an otherwise upbeat symbolic start to the holiday sales period — a time when some companies register more than half their sales — was the persistent threat that the coronavirus poses to public health and commerce. That anxiety took on greater urgency in recent days after evidence of a new coronavirus variant in South Africa prompted some countries to reinstate travel restrictions.

The emergence of the new variant was the latest hurdle for retailers who have been anticipating a holiday shopping season that is sure to be much more physically present than 2020 but not as carefree as it was pre-pandemic.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was massively expanded, with more floats and a longer route, though children under 12 were not allowed to participate in the parade itself. Big chains will offer certain festivities, like Champagne bars, that were missing last year. Gift ideas and decorations will feature more prominently in stores as retailers anticipate more people browsing and planning bigger gatherings.

“There’s a lot of pent-up energy to do things,” said Marie Driscoll, managing director of luxury and fashion at Coresight Research, an advisory and research firm. “Everything old is new again.”

But hallmarks of a changed season remain. Many stores were closed on Thanksgiving, and holiday hours at certain malls and chains will be shortened, in part because of a national labor shortage. And many people are bracing for a dearth of products like popular toys as “supply chain issues” becomes the refrain of 2021. There are also those customers who will stay away from stores, based on new habits adopted during the pandemic or ongoing concerns about the virus, and opt to shop online or using curbside pickups.

Driscoll said that signs of precautions would likely be visible throughout stores. “Retailers are going out of their way to make everybody feel comfortable, so at your own discretion you’re wearing a mask; there will be cleansers everywhere; there are options for self-checkout to not necessarily have to queue up and wait in lines,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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