Holiday shopping season kicks off early, presents unique challenges to retailers

In retail stores across the tri-states, Christmas displays are making their first appearance while the fall decor is still standing.

The odd juxtaposition underscores the seismic shifts in consumer behavior and retail strategy that are poised to shape holiday shopping in 2020.

In a recent survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, 74% of surveyed retailers said they expect this holiday shopping season to be longer than the previous year’s, largely because consumers are beginning to make their purchases far earlier than usual.

Jennifer Pickett, buyer and director at Gabby’s Gifts in Galena, Ill., has already seen this phenomenon take root.

“Because of the pandemic, people just aren’t going out as much,” said Pickett. “So when they do, there is a sense of urgency to it. They want to get things done and get everything purchased at that one time.”

Retailers are taking notice.

In the NRF survey, more than 60% of retailers indicated that they plan to have the majority of their holiday merchandise in stock this month.

Pickett said Gabby’s Gifts already had introduced a holiday section with ornaments and decor. At Potpourri, a retail shop in Dubuque, owner Julie Clark is also introducing Christmas-themed decor in the heart of the fall season.

“Every day I am putting out a little bit more (of the holiday items),” Clark said. “I am trying to make that transition.”


Across the nation, retailers are rolling out deals and promotions as quickly as possible.

Mega-retailer Amazon today kicked off its annual “Prime Day” promotion, which offers discounts and deals to its members over the course of a 48-hour period. The retailer sold $7 billion worth of goods through the promotion last year.

Eager to ride the coattails of the phenomenon, multiple major retailers across the U.S. have announced that they’ll roll out their own deals during the two-day stretch. Best Buy, Target and Walmart will offer special deals and pricing typically reserved for Black Friday.

Local businesses also are getting in on the trend.

Theisen’s Home-Farm-Auto recently launched its “Black Friday Deals Now” campaign, which introduces a new deal every day in October.

Marketing Director Keri Hanson said the promotion will encourage customers to make purchases earlier and avoid large holiday crowds. She noted that some items may be in short supply this year, adding another incentive to shop early.

“We are encouraging people to purchase their items early because in-demand housewares, clothing, pet and toy items may not be available by Black Friday,” Hanson wrote via email.


COVID-19 might also be driving more consumers to the virtual realm.

In the recent NRF survey, 96% of respondents said they expect online sales to be higher in 2020 than the year before.

Marissa Hoffmann, co-owner of The Midwest Girl in Dubuque, is confident that online sales will outpace in-person purchases at her shop this holiday season.

“I think people are going to shop local, but they are going to do so virtually,” said Hoffman.

With a robust web presence, The Midwest Girl will be able to take the transition in stride, Hoffmann said.

Some businesses will be impacted more than others, however.

Clark, of Potpourri, said her business does not have an established website and could be impacted negatively by the migration to online shopping.

“This will hurt the businesses depending on brick-and-mortar sales,” she said.


At Colony Brands in Peosta, workers fill orders for a variety of catalog companies. A growing reluctance to visit retail stores in person could be a boon to business, according to Human Resources Manager Lynn Mathison.

“Our volumes have increased as more consumers turn to us for goods rather than venturing out to brick-and-mortar stores, so we anticipate a very busy holiday season,” she wrote via email.

Hundreds of seasonal workers at the Peosta facility allow Colony Brands to meet this soaring demand. Mathison emphasized that the company is still hiring and aims to fill 50 more seasonal positions.

In Dubuque, Duluth Trading Co. is in the midst of its own massive seasonal hiring process.

Director of HR Operations Kevin Schoeneck said Duluth Trading Co. already has hired 175 seasonal workers at the Dubuque facility. In the months ahead, officials hope to bring that total to 600.

In the midst of a pandemic, ramping up to such numbers must be done with caution.

A wide range of safety measures are in place to reduce the threat of COVID-19.

Schoeneck said staff members are asked to wear masks and undergo temperature checks. Deep cleans of the facility are conducted nightly.

“We are taking it quite seriously and doing our absolute best to ensure the safety of our workers,” he said.