It might as well have been any other pandemic Friday in Downtown Crossing.
Though it was Black Friday, only a handful of shoppers shuffled from store to store in the Boston retail hub, many carrying bags from retail giants Gap, Primark, and Marshalls.
But unlike normal years, foot traffic was way down ― as it was across Massachusetts and around the nation.
“It wasn’t as busy as in past years,” said Ken Gloss, owner of the Brattle Book Shop on West St. “I sort of worried about how many people would be in ... but it was a perfectly acceptable day.”
Despite the pandemic, he’s hoping people will continue to shop in person, although he knows the store’s older customers appear to be hesitant. The shop’s online sales make up about 15 percent of overall revenue.
Larger retailers have been able to withstand the drop in foot traffic, hiring seasonal help to field deliveries and in-store pickups. But the shift from in-person buying during this unusual holiday season will likely damage small businesses more, as many did not have developed online operations prior to the pandemic.
Marcia Bennett, 65, traveled from Attleboro and spent hours inside Macy’s Friday because of the sales. She did her online shopping from Macy’s, too, since they deliver quickly. She hasn’t shopped at small businesses and thinks they will “lose out” if they can’t offer comparable discounts or delivery options.
Rosemarie Sansone, the president and chief executive of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, said smaller shops rely heavily on relationships they have with customers. But with pedestrian traffic down 75 percent in the Downtown Crossing area, Sansone said the impact will be unmistakable.
“It is about survival ... this really means jobs for people, being able to put food on the table, whether people can continue paying their rent or mortgage,” Sansone said.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said only about a quarter of the trade group’s 4,000 members reported selling online last year. That figure has doubled during the pandemic, but with online shopping on track to skyrocket, he said those who still rely heavily on brick and mortar sales could be in trouble.
Elery Pfeffer, the chief executive of Nift, the Boston-based startup that matches consumers with small businesses, said there aren’t any signs the falloff in spending at brick and mortar small businesses is coming back soon.
“Small businesses have moved to delivery as much as they can, but it is not near compensating for the loss in foot traffic,” Pfeffer said.
To combat the forecasts, several organizations are going all-in to encourage small businesses spending.
One of the most well-known campaigns is Small Business Saturday, started by American Express in 2010, in part to respond to the Great Recession. Hurst said the campaign has helped to increase local holiday sales, but the outlook this season is uncertain. That’s why the retail association is launching a $150,000 ad campaign to encourage it. The effort includes promoting the hashtag #BuyInMA, a contest for consumers, and a radio ad featuring Governor Charlie Baker.
The retail group hasn’t run a paid holiday ad for a few years, and this season’s campaign is the association’s most expensive one to date.
Denise Jillson, the executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, said she hopes consumers patronize local business districts this holiday season.
They “are competing with Amazon and other big box stores,” she said. “That is a challenge because if you shop at a local store, you are likely to pay more. It is very deliberate when you make that purchase.”
Daisy Noriega, 23, spent Black Friday on Charles Street. While she is an avid Amazon customer, she decided to do all her shopping on the Beacon Hill retail strip to support her community.
“My mom has a thrift shop in Chicago, so I know how much money was lost because of the pandemic,” she said. “This is the first year I am intentionally doing small business shopping.”