Colorado Retailers Aim To Avoid Black Friday Crowds This Year — Without Losing Sales

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Holiday ornaments on the unseasonably quiet streets of Cherry Creek North, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020.

Retailers are looking for new ways to boost sales for Black Friday as the pandemic upends holiday traditions. 

Retailers earn as much as 40 percent of their annual profit during the holidays, according to the Colorado Retail Council, a trade group. But this year, shoppers and merchants have to change their strategies, said Chris Howes, president of the Colorado Retail Association. The big promotions that usually kick off in November will be spread out over a longer timeframe, he said.

“You won’t see any Black Friday specials that will create crowds as the store opens,” Howes said. “That excitement of the door opening and people rushing in to get incredible deals will have to wait till next year.”

U.S. holiday sales are expected to increase by as much as 5 percent from last year, surpassing $766 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. But Howes isn’t willing to forecast what will happen in Colorado.

“I usually take a shot at making an educated guess, having done this for 20 years,” Howes said. “But I’m not sure I’m ready to do that this year.”

Cherry Creek North is holding its first-ever Christmas market. With more than 200 businesses spread out over 16 blocks just south of downtown Denver, the area attracts people from across Colorado to shop at local boutiques, as well as national chains like Crate and Barrel and Vineyard Vines.

The Christmas market builds on one of Cherry Creek North’s biggest strengths in the current environment, said Nick LeMasters, president and CEO of the area’s business improvement district.

“We’re outdoors and that’s a great position for us to be in right now,” LeMasters said. “People feel more comfortable outdoors given the nature of the pandemic.

Still, store capacity at Cherry Creek North — and in much of the state — is capped at 25 percent as COVID-19 cases surge. That’s a big challenge as the holiday shopping season gets underway. For small businesses already struggling to survive the pandemic, it’s more crucial than ever to maximize holiday sales.

Many retailers are pouring resources into online sales and curbside pickup. Some are looking for more creative ways to stand out, such as offering shopping appointments with food and drink, said LeMasters of Cherry Creek North.

Kristina Thayer, who sells candles, plants and other decorative objects out of a small storefront in Denver’s Highlands neighborhood, is hopeful shoppers will look to support small businesses during the holidays.

This year has been a hard one for Thayer. She lost her former space in the Santa Fe Arts District over the summer. Her store, Candelaria, previously hosted candle making workshops. She wasn’t sure it was worth finding a new storefront as it became increasingly clear the pandemic would shut down that revenue stream for the foreseeable future. She considered moving to online only.

“I had a very long and arduous task of figuring out if I can continue in the middle of a pandemic trying to figure out how to make it happen,” she said.

But when the spot in the Highlands popped up, she grabbed it. The area was too expensive for Thayer prior to the pandemic, but the landlord offered a lower rate and flexible lease terms. She has the option to get out of the deal if the store’s not working out after a year.

She’s only allowing five people in the store at one time. For the holidays, she’s limiting visits to 15 minutes to prevent long lines. She says the pandemic has brought a new role to the job of small business owner — bouncer.

When somebody starts coming in the door — have to yell across the store that — hey can you please stand outside for an infinite amount of time before you can come in and actually shop,” Thayer said.