Greg and Christina Benoit of Benoit's Design stand in their Westbrook showroom on Wednesday. Christina Benoit, creative director of the home decor, gifts and apparel store, expects higher revenues this year than last, saying customers are “really focused on buying local this year.” Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Black Friday deal-seekers can rest after their big dinner on Thanksgiving this year rather than rush out to be first in line when their favorite store opens after midnight on Friday.

State and national health officials have urged people to keep holiday celebrations small and close to home as the coronavirus spreads quickly in Maine and across the country. One side effect of that is helping small businesses here as shoppers flock online, pick up curbside and look to support local businesses and Maine-made goods.

“There’s been a silver lining through all of this because even smaller retailers have made some necessary investments in technology to make online shopping easier for their customers,” Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine, said.

The trifecta of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday this weekend marks the traditional start to the holiday season and the time when retailers make most of their annual sales. But the season is likely to be more spread out this year as larger retailers including Walmart are promoting early Black Friday deals and encouraging online sales.

In Maine, Reny’s ran early bird specials all day instead of in the early morning hours to help prevent lines and kick off holiday sales early. Picard said his organization has been encouraging efforts to drive early sales and minimize crowds to keep in-person shopping safe.

The National Retail Federation predicts a surprisingly strong end to a sales year marred by the pandemic. It is forecasting that holiday sales during November and December will increase as much as 5 percent to $767 billion compared to last year. The industry group expects the online portion of those sales to increase by 20 percent over last year. Some of the bump could come from people saving money amid the pandemic.

Christina Benoit, creative director at Benoit’s Design, a Westbrook home decor, gifts and apparel store that she co-founded with her husband Greg in 2014, expects higher revenues this year than last, saying customers are “really focused on buying local this year.”

The 1,000-square-foot store, which allows five customers in at a time to honor the state’s coronavirus restrictions, employs four people. Benoit said during the downtime when virus restrictions forced the store to close temporarily, she and her husband were able to add new products and focus on the best way to present them online.

“We know that’s going to be the major way people are shopping this year,” she said, adding that the store has quadrupled online business this year.

Like Benoit, Lisa-Marie’s Made in Maine, a home, fashion and pet accessories store with locations in Bath and Portland, doubled down on e-commerce when its physical stores had to close at the beginning of the pandemic. Most of the time people ordering online are buying for themselves and picking up items curbside.

“But I noticed on our website a couple of weeks ago that over half of the people are shipping packages to different addresses, which means they are doing their gift shopping early,” said Lisa-Marie Stewart, general manager of the 18-year-old store. One of the most popular items is a basket with dozens of different Maine food items.

Retail sales-tracking website eMarketer.com expects a dramatic shift from brick-and-mortar to e-commerce shopping over the holidays, forecasting that U.S. consumers will spend more than $16 billion on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, up more than 40 percent each day compared to last year. Much of the Thanksgiving Day shopping in Maine will be online, because the state’s long-standing religious Blue Laws limit many larger stores from opening on Thanksgiving, although they still sell online.

Heidi Neal, co-owner of Loyal Biscuit, a pet shop chain with seven locations in Maine, said Small Business Saturday usually is the biggest of the three bargain days over the Thanksgiving weekend, but she has scaled back in-store specials and promotions this year because of the pandemic. Not being able to hold the annual early bird sale at all the stores earlier in November also cut sales, so she expects annual sales to be down.

Heidi Neal, co-owner of Loyal Biscuit, poses Wednesday at the pet shop chain’s store in Hallowell. Online orders have been picking up as the holiday season begins, especially for a seasonal box with a healthy holiday meal for a dog or cat. Credit: Michael Shepherd / BDN

However, online orders with curbside pickup are doing well, especially for a seasonal “Gobble Good Biscuit Box” with a healthy holiday meal for a dog or cat that will be sold for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It includes a canned turkey dinner with potatoes and a pumpkin pie cookie.

Loyal Biscuit also has benefited from another pandemic side effect: high adoption rates of animals for companionship when people are stuck at home. The store has an adoption bundle product for new pet owners.

Bain & Co. said it expects almost half of shoppers across all income levels to buy online through the November and December holidays, although an equal number also plan to spend less than last year.

Michael Ludwig of Bangor, who said he never rushed to stores on Black Friday even before the pandemic, is one of those people. He expects to spend about 30 percent less this year because of the pandemic, plus his children are grown and he doesn’t want to buy things that they end up not really needing. His preference is online shopping and his wife, who normally spent three days shopping at stores, has taken up crafting gifts like many other Americans during the pandemic.

State guidelines for retailers are unchanged so far over the holidays, according to Maine Department of Economic and Community Development spokesperson Kate Foye. Stores are allowed five customers per 1,000 square feet and customers and employees must wear face masks at all times and maintain social distancing.

“Maine retailers are also offering a wide range of curbside pickup and online options, which we encourage people to take advantage of,” department Commissioner Heather Johnson said. “We encourage Maine people to support local Maine businesses by shopping safely with them this holiday season.”

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