As a big digital race clock ticks down at Sota Clothing’s St. Louis Park warehouse, shoppers feel the heat. Some grab everything they can. When the clock hits zero, a buzzer sounds, and the shoppers are ushered out so the space can be sanitized before the next group’s 20-minute dash.
Sota Clothing’s socially distant spin on its annual summer warehouse sale reflected Minnesota retailers’ many novel approaches—from new ways to shop to new product lines—to staying in business during unprecedented times.
“We’re very good at creating spaces where we’re not supposed to be, and we’re used to setting something up and taking it down within the day,” Sota owner Spencer Johnson says.
But what about when that day is Black Friday?
Even before the pandemic, Black Friday was a dying shopping holiday to some. Every year, the weeks before the holiday season seem to get more saturated with sales, with Thanksgiving, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday all in the mix. This year, big names like Target and Home Depot started deals in October to avoid crowds and overloaded delivery chains. Because of this, the plans that stores will trot out for Black Friday weekend fit into an already evolving narrative.
Stepping Up and Giving Back
Given Sota Clothing‘s approach to its warehouse sale, it’s unsurprising that it is refitting Black Friday, too. The storewide 20% discount will still be there, and so will the race clock for segmented early-bird shopping. Since a packed store is decidedly a bad thing this year, the building’s event space will become an extended storefront. “Luckily for us, we started as an online business, so we have online down really well,” Johnson says.
Looking ahead to the holiday season, Johnson’s toying with socially distant ideas, like using the event space, instigating a text queue for busy days, and bringing out the ol’ pop-up trailer to create express customer service in the parking lot. (Sadly, no visits from Santa.) The casual apparel shop has been able to even out over the pandemic, reporting sales this past August that were comparable to the same period in 2019, but other brands have more to make up for.
“Our sales are down 71% from last year,” Local Motion owner Tonya Bryan says. “We dress women for work, for events, for weddings, for vacations, and no one is doing anything.”
Local Motion’s second largest sales of the year are on Black Friday weekend (after the Uptown Art Fair, which was canceled this summer). Local Motion will do the expected sales, but Bryan laments that she cannot create her usual winter wonderland with decorations, live music, and treats. To connect with shoppers who could no longer stop by, Bryan started hosting Facebook Live sessions this spring that included product highlights, fashion shows, and more.
Boutiques face the challenges at their own pace. With 22,000 square feet for spacious shopping, MartinPatrick3 is planning on the same Black Friday sales concept as past years—minus the refreshments. This year, the North Loop men’s lifestyle shop treaded water with social media shopping, curbside pickups, concierge virtual shopping, and in-person with COVID-19 safety protocols. Then the team did something most didn’t: They accelerated their plans, adding women’s retail and lifestyle products in September. “Since we were cutting orders [with fall and winter menswear quantities dropping 30-50%], we had space that we could fill,” says CEO Dana Swindler. “So, it was perfect.”
On the day of the launch, sales were 40% down from last year, and Swindler knows he’ll end the year in the red. For now, though, he can keep going.
Swindler’s North Loop neighbor Queen Anna House of Fashion also has made service and wardrobe shifts. COVID-19 inspired owner Nicole Jennings to convert her shop into a showroom, complete with steaming for every item tried on. Jennings had already embraced technology, having debuted an app months after her store opened in 2017.
But even more than the pandemic, the death of George Floyd signaled a new direction for the shop. Its aftermath pushed her to evolve her style content with racial justice in mind. In August, she launched Elevate and Amplify, a multi-day virtual event and marketplace that highlighted Black businesses around the country and held panels on allyship. “You couldn’t necessarily come here and get leggings and a T-shirt before,” says Jennings. “But you can now, because I’ve had to rethink what people are wearing.” The leggings are full leather, and T-shirts have messages of empowerment.
Queen Anna doesn’t run Black Friday sales, and will close the storefront on Thanksgiving this year, but has historically offered holiday incentives, such as gift wrapping. Also known for gift wrapping, boutique chain Patina started e-commerce during the mandated store closures. District manager Karin Tappera adds that its stores’ locally exclusive items have helped the bottom line.
In these times, more and more stores have eschewed Black Friday’s consumerism and woven in philanthropy, like the Foundry and Ace General Store. Except for considerations on crowd control, their approaches to the holiday giving season haven’t changed much.
Malls benefit from ampler space, so Black Friday is more a matter of bringing people in, to avoid the fate of the Burnsville Center, which foreclosed this past summer. Mall of America made headlines in 2019 with 8,000 giveaways. This year, the focus is on refining safety precautions and enhanced services like contact-free curbside pickup that rolled out this summer, according to executive vice president Jill Renslow—while still trying to infuse the holiday spirit into things. In October, the mall added Community Commons, an initiative to give space to businesses displaced by this past summer’s civil unrest.
Maple Grove’s outdoor mall, the Shoppes at Arbor Lakes, is bringing back its locally focused Plaid Market, and the team has also added a personal shopper to provide gift and styling advice in person or virtually.
Of the retail-industry folks we talked to, Rosedale Center’s director of marketing and experience Sarah Fossen painted the rosiest picture: The million-square-foot Roseville mall is fresh off a remodel, a new shoe store sold out of its kids’ selections in one day, and a recent Halloween drive-through garnered 25,000 RSVPs.
But perhaps the biggest score is Rosedale’s enhanced ecosystem of curbside pickup and social media shopping. To better meet modern consumers, the team had already spent almost a year working on a technology-driven holiday shopping experience before COVID-19 hit. (At the time of publication, details were still under wraps.) “We’re so fortunate that so much of it was no-touch, on your phones, and doing everything digital,” says Fossen. “It just happens to be safe and within those guidelines, but we didn’t have to adapt and sacrifice the experience in any way.”