Attention Atlanta holiday shoppers: Long lines, less staff, less stuff

Customers line up at the checkout counter at the Bass Pro Shops near Lawrenceville on Saturday, November 13, 2021 STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
Customers line up at the checkout counter at the Bass Pro Shops near Lawrenceville on Saturday, November 13, 2021 STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The giant electronic sign in Cumberland Mall’s center court flashes a plea that carries extra weight this year.

“Practice Patience & Kindness. Let’s show appreciation for retail workers this holiday season.”

Metro Atlantans’ urge to shop in stores for holiday gifts is being tested for a second year by the pandemic.

Shoppers face a less socially distanced and increasingly crowded season with expectations for record retail spending but also longer lines, sparser shelves and higher prices.

While big national chains like Walmart and Target say their warehouses are full, some retailers have yet to receive all the Christmas goods they ordered and aren’t sure when they will. And many worry about not having enough workers to keep things flowing smoothly in a season that even in normal years is their most lucrative, hectic and operationally punishing.

Dean Curtin is hopeful.

The owner of DCI Styles, a men’s apparel shop in Perimeter Mall, said last holiday season his sales were just 60% of normal. But like many retailers, recent earlier-than-normal holiday shopping has convinced him that he’ll not only easily top last year’s figures but also those of 2019 before COVID-19.

“People want to get out. People are entertaining again,” Curtin said.

Just one issue: About 35% of the inventory of the “polished casual” clothing he ordered, primarily from other countries, still hasn’t arrived at his Dunwoody shop. “It was supposed to be in a month ago.” He’s been told to expect it soon.

ExploreAJC Gift guide 2021: The best gifts for babies and toddlers
Caption
Dean Curtin, the owner of DCI Styles, an apparel store at Perimeter Mall, said early holiday shopping has convinced him he'll do better seasonal sales this year than even pre-pandemic. But he was waiting on some inventory that was supposed to be in weeks ago. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Credit: Matt Kempner

Dean Curtin, the owner of DCI Styles, an apparel store at Perimeter Mall, said early holiday shopping has convinced him he'll do better seasonal sales this year than even pre-pandemic. But he was waiting on some inventory that was supposed to be in weeks ago. MATT KEMPNER / AJC
Caption
Dean Curtin, the owner of DCI Styles, an apparel store at Perimeter Mall, said early holiday shopping has convinced him he'll do better seasonal sales this year than even pre-pandemic. But he was waiting on some inventory that was supposed to be in weeks ago. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Credit: Matt Kempner

Credit: Matt Kempner

Curtin said he’s learned to stop stressing after 15 years in business that started with three dozen T-shirts at a flea market. “You adapt.”

Customers, like retailers, might have to learn to do the same.

This Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa season isn’t expected to be normal. The National Retail Federation predicts November and December holiday retail sales — in-store and online — will be up 8.5% to 10.5%. That would be record growth and a record high in total sales.

Online sales will grow even faster, the NRF predicts. Still, shoppers have shown rising interest in visiting physical stores. Nationally, online sales dipped to 13.3% of overall retail sales in the second quarter, down from a high set a year earlier, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Adriane Booker of Snellville said she already has bought more gifts for this Christmas compared with 2020.

Unlike a year ago, she’s ventured out into stores. Double masked and wearing gloves, she shopped earlier than normal and finished weeks ago so she could avoid crowds. She even picked up a gift for herself: a Wi-Fi karaoke system.

“Last year I felt like Christmas was a little bit robbed,” she said.

Caption
Tatum Phillips and his wife Cheyenne shop for Christmas presents at the Bass Pro Shops near Lawrenceville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Tatum Phillips and his wife Cheyenne shop for Christmas presents at the Bass Pro Shops near Lawrenceville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
Tatum Phillips and his wife Cheyenne shop for Christmas presents at the Bass Pro Shops near Lawrenceville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Economists say many Americans are primed to spend, having built up savings after curbing purchases earlier in the pandemic and collecting government stimulus dollars. COVID-19 cases in Georgia have fallen sharply from highs during the Delta variant surge. Earlier this month, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms lifted the city’s public indoor mask mandate, after concluding the city is officially in the “green zone” for cases.

That is expected to smooth over shopper worries about rising inflation. October retail sales nationally soared about 16% from a year earlier. But at the same time, consumer prices surged 6.2%, the biggest jump since 1990.

A rush to stores could slam shoppers into other economic realities.

Some retailers continue to face difficulty receiving products after the pandemic scrambled manufacturing operations and a bevy of logistical headaches have tangled global supply networks. Meanwhile, the tight labor market has left many Georgia employers shorthanded. Store managers worry about overworked crews and not enough people to handle the expected wave of returning shoppers.

Numerous retailers continue to post job opening notices online and on storefront windows. Some stores locally are offering hundreds of dollars in sign-on bonuses for seasonal sales associates. Hourly pay varies widely, from the federal minimum wage of $7.25 to more than $15.

Workers still aren’t flocking to many retail jobs. Some apparently are turning to other industries with higher pay, fewer demands and less risk of having to deal with a sometimes ornery public. And the coronavirus is still circulating, posing a health hazard for front-line workers.

Caption
A message on a sign in Cumberland Mall's center court carries extra importance this year for stores facing a shortage of workers and delayed inventory. "Practice Patience & Kindness," the message says. "Let's show appreciation for retail workers this holiday season." MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Credit: Matt Kempner

A message on a sign in Cumberland Mall's center court carries extra importance this year for stores facing a shortage of workers and delayed inventory. "Practice Patience & Kindness," the message says. "Let's show appreciation for retail workers this holiday season." MATT KEMPNER / AJC
Caption
A message on a sign in Cumberland Mall's center court carries extra importance this year for stores facing a shortage of workers and delayed inventory. "Practice Patience & Kindness," the message says. "Let's show appreciation for retail workers this holiday season." MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Credit: Matt Kempner

Credit: Matt Kempner

A manager at an apparel store at Cumberland Mall said he had only a third of the staff he needed. He hoped to find more workers and station them in ways to keep checkout lines manageable. Hopefully, shoppers won’t notice much different, he said. But for staffers, he said, “It’s going to be a big struggle.”

A manager at a different clothing store at the Cobb County mall said the shop has less than half the people it needs. She spent a recent weekend shift with just one other worker. Checkout lines were long.

“It was daunting,” she said. “Black Friday is probably going to be much worse. This is just the start.”

One happy surprise, she said: No customers seemed irate.

At a sprawling Bass Pro Shops at Sugarloaf Mills mall near Lawrenceville, manager Michael Graber has been working to bring in holiday hires since September. By mid-November, he was still at it.

“We are shorthanded as far as getting everybody that we want,” he said.

Caption
Jason and Kiley Lanahan pose with Santa with their daughter walker at the Bass Pro Shops near Lawrenceville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Jason and Kiley Lanahan pose with Santa with their daughter walker at the Bass Pro Shops near Lawrenceville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
Jason and Kiley Lanahan pose with Santa with their daughter walker at the Bass Pro Shops near Lawrenceville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Plenty of shelves in area stores look fully stocked. But on some racks, big department stores seem to be strategically spreading out items to give the appearance of more bountiful offerings.

“There is definitely less inventory all around,” said Nikki Baird, the vice president of retail innovations for Atlanta-based Aptos, which provides software for major retailers.

Chains that put in orders nine months to a year in advance normally have their stockpiles in place by August or September. Instead, many are still waiting or are receiving shipments that arrive with 20% to 40% less than what they ordered, particularly when it comes to shoes or apparel, she said.

Shoppers will see fewer seasonal items and unique styles, she said. Retailers have tried to cut their risks by sticking with a narrower assortment of basic products.

At the same time, consumers should expect fewer discounts. With strong sales demand at higher prices, retailers have found they can scale back on price promotions they had planned, Baird said.

ExploreAtlanta topped nation’s metro areas for inflation in October

Nikolay Osadchiy, an Emory University associate professor who teaches supply chain management, has advice for shoppers this season: “Be flexible.”

Have alternative gift ideas in mind, he said. Don’t panic buy. Give stores time to replenish supplies.

“Retailers will get creative with keeping their shelves full. They will put something there,” he said.

Pandemic precautions in some stores have been scaled back. At Bass Pro Shops in Lawrenceville, kids visiting Santa Claus last year were separated from the seated, bearded man by “The Magic Santa Shield.” This time around there’s no such clear plastic barrier. The store offers visits with “contactless Santa” who sits as kids plop onto a nearby bench rather than on his lap. It’s a bit less than the CDC’s recommendation for at least six feet of social distancing.

Fewer stores are limiting the number of patrons who enter. And while some still have signs up about requirements to wear masks, most make only recommendations or don’t broach the subject at all. Half to three quarters of shoppers at Cumberland and Perimeter malls were wearing masks during recent spot checks by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter.

Anna Widemond expects to go bigger on Christmas gift buying this year. She was already getting a sense of what might be ahead.

A frequent shopper at a Costco in Buford, she was surprised by the mass of people there on a Saturday in mid-November. It was earlier than normal for holiday crowds, she thought. And the busiest she had remembered seeing the store since the pandemic began.

“It’s only going to get crazier,” she said.

About the Author

ajc.com

Editors' Picks