The pandemic has a put a crimp in a lot of people's lives, but it was no match for Black Friday.
Moments before a line of 50 shoppers swept into Rochester's Best Buy as if by a great vacuum, Mark Cavanaugh of Red Wing was standing in a darkened parking lot under the twinkling stars, waiting to pick up his pre-ordered Xbox. It was 4:30 a.m.
"I've never done Black Friday shopping before. I try to stay away from the madness," Cavanaugh said.
But the 42-year-old mobile home property manager was willing to put up with a certain amount of madness if it meant getting his hands on the game console. Cavanagh stopped at GameStop previously to try to get a PlayStation 5, but there were so many people there at 4 a.m. for in-store deals that he headed to Best Buy to pick-up his pre-order.
"I ordered it a week ago. I was one of the lucky few to get my hands on it," Cavanaugh said.
Black Friday this holiday season will be schizophrenic in its effects for Rochester's business community. Large retailers and big box stores are poised for a bang-up holiday shopping season. Owners of independent stores and home-grown retailers are looking to survive what could be the most brutal year of their lifetimes.
A pandemic. Government-mandated shutdowns. Record rates of unemployment. Their effects are being spread unevenly. While for small and home-grown businesses, it's been the worst of times, corporate retailers are on the cusp of a "best of times" possibility.
George John, a marketing professor at the Carlson School of Management, said consumer spending has "snapped back" from the steep dive it took in February and March when the pandemic took hold. Housing and cars, the foundation of consumer spending, are looking rock solid right now. The housing market is on fire, and the prices of used and new car are strong. That augers for a robust Black Friday.
"In many ways, the consumer is in good shape. They've got a ton of money, thanks to things like the paycheck protection program and (other government programs)," George said.
The same can't be said for many mom-and-pop shops and home-grown retailers and restaurants. Playing on an uneven field to begin with, they found themselves at a further disadvantage during the first shutdown. They were forced to close their doors, while the bigger stores stayed open.
"Their goose is cooked unless they can hang in there until the pandemic is controlled," John said. "They just don't have the financial depth to tide over a prolonged patch where foot traffic and sanitizing protocols and distancing requirements are still in place."
Meanwhile, Black Friday has been re-invented. No longer a single day or two days anymore, it now covers weeks, even months. The starting gun isn't shoppers lining up at the crack of dawn the day after Thanksgiving, waiting to burst through doors. The starting point was Halloween.
"You just go online, you will see Black Friday sales like on Amazon, and they've been running those ads for heaven knows how long," John said.
Even with the growth of online shopping, retailers still want to get shoppers into their stores. So deals galore are being offered, and stores did not wait until Black Friday to offer them.
Small retailers are trying to catch up. Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce President Kathleen Harrington predicts that Black Friday will not be "doom and gloom" for all local retailers. But how it all shakes out will depend upon the community and their willingness to shop local.
The chamber has embarked on an aggressive #shoplocalsafely campaign, the goal of which is to inspire and strengthen a civic-mindedness in people's shopping habits. The multi-pronged blitz, using billboards, radio public announcements and stickers, reminds people of a basic fact: One in three jobs in Olmsted County comes from small business. This is about your neighbor, the waiter putting herself through college, Harrington said.
"This is about, bottom line, community strength and how can we make certain that these businesses make it through this time," Harrington said.
The chamber has worked with local businesses over the last several months, encouraging them to develop an online presence and make social media a part of their marketing strategies.
Most of these stores and shops never had to worry about such social media. A steady stream of customers, Mayo Clinic patients and employees into their stores never made it an imperative. But now that their customer base has dwindled due to the pandemic and the need for social-distancing, new skills and ways to appeal to customers are critical.
In time for the holiday season, the chamber has also unveiled a #shoplocalsafely tool that allows people to shop for items sold by local stores. Harrington calls it an "Amazon lite" option for customers of local shops.
Say you are shopping for men's slippers. Put the words in the search bar, and the search will show where the item can be bought, the store's location, directions, a phone number and whether it offers curbside pick-up. More than 125 area businesses are participating in the effort.
Harrington said she will know whether the local efforts have yielded success is if she fields fewer calls from people seeking information about unemployment insurance for their workers or information on filing for bankruptcy.
"How do we make it easy for people to really care about and support local retailers?" Harrington said. "We've got great folks here and that's what we're trying to do."