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.”