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Changes in holiday shopping could shape the future of retail
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Usually holiday shopping means long lines, crowded malls, packed parking lots, empty shelves and last-minute shopping.

But with 2020 being a year unlike any other, many may wonder whether this Black Friday will bring the familiar noise of crowds gathering in the early morning hours or instead a much quieter atmosphere.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a struggle for retail stores and has continued into the most important shopping time of the year — the holidays. To stay afloat, local businesses have been forced to make changes to meet consumer demands and their new shopping habits.

Patt Lilly, the president and CEO of the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce, said this holiday shopping season won’t be like years past, but it shouldn’t look that much different than what we’ve seen in the last six months.

“I don’t think you’re going to see that convergence of shopping that we’ve seen in the past,” Lilly said. “It’s been waning a little bit anyway as people find different ways to buy things instead of getting up at dawn and standing in line in front of a retail store.”

Customers are experiencing those differences.

“The wife and I have probably bought more on Amazon than we did before,” said Mike Van Brunt, a shopper at East Hills Shopping Center.

Many Black Friday big-box staples like Best Buy and Target already have started their holiday sales to limit day-after-Thanksgiving crowds, while local shops have added online shopping to their offerings.

“Compared to Black Friday, since that got ‘cancelled’, they are doing more deals,” said Beccah Van Brunt, who was shopping at East Hills. “Like I got two pairs of shoes for only 30 bucks.”

Adapting to change

The pandemic has forced many smaller businesses to adapt to the changing environment.

“We personally transitioned to online sales,” said Cris Coffman, the owner of Nesting Goods. “I know a lot of our business neighbors have done the same and tried to offer multiple ways to shop.”

According to Adobe Analytics, U.S. customers spent $21.7 billion online in the first 10 days of this holiday shopping season — a 21% year-over-year increase.

While the holidays will look different this year, the changes stores have been forced to make may shape the future of shopping.

Manic Snail, a local paper, gift and card boutique shop in Downtown St. Joseph, celebrated its second anniversary in May.

“Right before that time, we felt like we were really hitting our stride,” said Dana Massin, the owner of Manic Snail. “We were understanding what type of customers were coming in, when they’re coming in, what sort of events attract them.”

Then the pandemic hit.

“Everything has changed since then,” she said. “The most challenging part for me has been not knowing what’s going to work. It’s been a lot of trial and error. Everything that we thought we knew, we don’t know anymore. That’s been the most challenging part — every day having to adapt and reinvent.”

The pandemic has been a learning experience for many businesses, and like any significant change, there are both struggles and successes.

“There have been a lot of new challenges none of us have ever faced before,” said Coffman of Nesting Goods. “It’s been an interesting time period. We’ve all learned a lot and struggled.”

Pandemic accelerates innovation

Multiple owners said many of the changes they were forced to make during the pandemic have actually increased business.

“It’s sad that it took a pandemic for us to figure that out,” Massin said. “Every change that we’ve made has not only served us better as a business during the pandemic, but I feel it will serve us better after the pandemic too. We implemented local delivery services, the curbside, we really amped up our online shopping experience, which has allowed us to reach more customers outside of St. Joseph.”

The pandemic became an accelerator of business and consumer ideas that already were considered but never implemented.

Brian David Johnson is a futurist and professor at Arizona State University. He works with organizations to look 10 years down the road to model positive and negative futures, which organizations then use to make business decisions. Johnson said COVID-19 essentially forced businesses’ hands.

“The pandemic has accelerated conditions that were existing before,” Johnson said. “Everything that we’ve seen happen had its roots laid at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century, so you’ve seen this sort of great accelerator.”

This is what happened with Coffman and online shopping at Nesting Goods.

“Online shopping was something that we had always planned for but just never quite had the time to get to,” Coffman said. “The shelter-in-place (order) allowed for that time, so it is something that we plan to continue going forward, but it was something of a new addition for our business.”

Increased online shopping, local delivery and curbside pickup are many of the adaptations stores were forced to make to meet new consumer habits.

“It’s still kind of figuring out what people are most comfortable with, how they like to shop,” Coffman said. “People like to pick things up and touch them, so they lose that with the website. But when you’re forced into that, our customers have been wonderful and continue to transition with us and support us that way as well.”

New normal for shopping

These changes may be temporary, but at the same time businesses and consumers may be looking at the future of shopping.

Many businesses already were moving toward technology and automation before the pandemic, and Lilly said that’s here to stay.

“Businesses were already on the cusp of looking at automation, looking at different ways of doing things, looking at different ways to distribute things,” Lilly said. “I think that the pandemic simply accelerated that in the sense that they now are more strategically looking at what automation can do.”

This increased automation and technology will likely impact employment. There won’t be fewer jobs due to these advancements, the jobs will just change.

“I think we will begin to see employment shift,” said Johnson, the futurist. “You start to see people being shoppers, you start to see people being delivery people. This is one of the things coming out of the pandemic that we will see more of. The changes will allow for autonomy and automation and robotics to actually come into shopping and retail much more.”

In the long run, Lilly said there will be more jobs through the evolution of automation in retail.

“Typically what happens is, as automation picks up it creates other types of jobs and opportunities for people,” Lilly said. “So I think it’ll take us a while to get through, or to get back to where we were, from an employment standpoint, but I think long term we’ll be fine.”

Ultimately, the changes made during the pandemic that are likely to stay in place when COVID-19 is controlled will give customers more choices.

“I think as we move out of the pandemic, everything that we’re seeing is that shopping will be very fundamentally different,” Johnson said. “As consumers, it’s going to be really exciting, because we’re going to have more choice — we’re going to have more choice of how we get the things that we want and where we get them.”

The pandemic has forced many local businesses to adapt and change, and many stores said it has been for the best. So when the pandemic ends, many changes will become permanent, and Massin of Manic Snail said that’s a good thing.

“If we as a community expect things to go back to the way they were, we’re missing an opportunity to become better,” Massin said. “Trials and hardships can often bring new innovation and new ways of connecting and working together, and if we want things to go back to where they were 100%, we’re missing a huge opportunity to improve.”

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If travel is a must, precautions are needed

The holiday season is approaching, marking a busy time for travel and visiting family. But like many things this year, travel needs to look different in order to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged people not to travel this holiday season, the reality is some will anyway. That’s why it’s important to observe recommended precautions.

Dr. Randall Williams, director of Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services, is echoing that message. He said people should take steps to incorporate COVID-19 safety guidelines into homes and travel if they are gathering for the holidays.

“We’re seeing so much of the community transmission now around people not social distancing. They’re gathering together,” he said. “They may feel safe going to Walmart wearing a mask, but then they go back to their house and have 20 people over and they don’t social distance and they don’t wear a mask.”

He said this gives a false sense that the people close to you aren’t carrying the virus.

“There’s children coming home from college, there’s children coming from other cities, your cousins and uncles and aunts. All of them can carry COVID-19 and be asymptotic,” he said.

If you’re leaving town for a holiday visit, first check what case rates look like where you are going.

Nancy King, St. Joseph Health Department educator, said due to a continued increase in cases and a new increase in deaths per day, St. Joseph can be considered a hot spot for the virus.

“I think that we are considered a hot one based on those criteria, so it would be more looking at if we are going into an area to visit that has a lower transition rate, just be cognizant of the fact that you could be contagious but not yet showing symptoms,” King said.

She said people in the community should keep gatherings small to help combat local increases in cases.

“The safest way would be to have a small Thanksgiving dinner with just members that live with you in your household,” she said. “We know cases are rising in our community pretty rapidly,” she said. “We have a lot of people in the hospital, a lot of new cases daily and we’re starting to get a new increase in deaths per day, so whatever we can do to help reduce the potential exposure to other people with COVID is the safest thing to do.”

If you’re driving for the holidays, limiting stops and making sure you’re wearing a mask and keeping your hands clean whenever you are out of the car is important.

Williams said travelers should avoid sitting inside when making a stop on a trip.

“You might want to consider eating in the car opposed to eating in a restaurant,” Williams said.

Martin Liles, assistant district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation’s Northwest office, said road crews are working hard to help drivers have a smooth and healthy trip.

“In case there is that additional traffic like normal or if there’s not, our facilities are open,” he said. “Our rest areas and welcome centers are open and ready for the general public. The cleaning of those have been really focused a lot harder on.”

In case there are issues while traveling, Lilies said it’s important to have PPE and sanitizer.

“Make sure that they’re well prepared with those types of personal protective equipment,” Liles said.

For those flying, masks will be especially important. Williams said he knows of only about 100 cases of COVID-19 that have been connected to flights when a mask is used properly.

“That’s if you’re wearing a mask. So obviously people are close together, you need to wear a mask the whole trip, not just on the plane but in the airport,” Williams said.

These tips are key if travel is necessary this holiday season. Williams said anyone, especially those at high risk, should consider holding family gatherings virtually this year.

“This would be the year that I would have the holidays by Zoom because if you think about it, the last thing that anybody wants is the memory of this holiday to be a loved one who became ill,” he said. “You don’t want to look back to the Thanksgiving of 2020 and realize, well that’s when so and so got ill,” he said.

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Income growth was on a roll before COVID

St. Joseph and surrounding areas saw solid income growth last year, including in rural counties that reported some of the biggest gains in the country.

Now, the question is whether that momentum will continue following the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the economy.

Patt Lilly, president and CEO of the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce, said he’s optimistic.

“You would intuitively think that this figure might be a little lower next year,” Lilly said, “in part because we have seen a higher rate of unemployment. Of course, you also have the reality of the stimulus.”

What’s not in dispute is that the most recent numbers reflect a tight labor market that drove both income and wage growth across the board.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis released a report last week that showed Buchanan County’s personal income increased 3.5% from 2018 to 2019, to $40,156 a year. That was a bigger increase than the 1.5% from 2017 to 2018 and roughly in line with the average of 4% for metropolitan areas and 3.5% for rural areas.

The swings were even bigger in rural areas, including an increase of 12.1% in Doniphan County, Kansas, to $44,486.

The economic development director in Doniphan County said rural areas sometimes experience sharper spikes because of year-to-year variation in farm income.

“Even though they classify Doniphan County as a metro area, we’re still extremely rural,” said Leah Johnson, the county’s director of economic development. “I know 2019 was a great farming year, great for yields.”

Some speculated that the income growth in rural counties last year could be tied to government payments intended to blunt the impact of tariffs for farmers. In Atchison County, Missouri, personal income increased 20% — the highest rate in the state — to $48,160. Holt County had the second-highest rate of increase, at 19.3%.

“In Buchanan County we have had a fairly strong increase in wage rates as compared to many of our peer communities,” Lilly said, “but it tends to grow a little more slowly than some of the rural areas. You don’t see that fluctuation.”

The BEA’s personal income numbers reflect a broad range of payments, including wages, retiree benefits, government transfer payments, rents and ownership of some financial assets. A different report from the state of Missouri takes a more narrow look at private sector wages and found that St. Joseph workers saw an average increase of 6% in September of 2020 compared to the same month in 2019.

The average private sector wage was $24.15 in the St. Joseph metropolitan area. Average hourly earnings in St. Joseph ranged from $32.44 in professional/business services to $14.83 in leisure and hospitality.

Lilly said St. Joseph’s economy has weathered the coronavirus better than others, in part because the concentration of manufacturing and distribution employers saw fewer job reductions during the stay-at-home orders and their aftermath. He said the wage growth doesn’t just benefit individual workers but also has a broader effect on consumer spending.

“Much of the work that we do from an economic development standpoint is intended to raise the tide, so to speak, raise the opportunity for additional income so people can have a better life,” Lilly said. “There is the old adage that raising tide lifts all boats. Certainly, I think incomes are part of that tide.”

Kylee Strough, president of the United Way of Greater St. Joseph, said wage and income growth is good news for the community, but she believes it’s also important to recognize that some are still struggling to make ends meet.

She said some workers have experienced income disruptions because of COVID-19, while women are often more likely to lose hours at work if a child needs support for home-based schooling. Single mothers can find that the cost of child care or other services outpaces the increase in wages.

”I’m fearful it’s going to be a long, hard winter,” she said. “Even when all economic indicators are good there are still households that are struggling.”