In some ways, Prime Day is the same as ever – a concocted, hype-filled holiday for Amazon.com Inc. to lure more people to sign up for a membership. But the deals blitz is different in at least one key way this year: It’s a much more high-stakes affair for retailers that are not Amazon.  

Timing is one reason. Prime Day has typically taken place in July, a fairly sleepy time of year for the retail industry. Amazon competitors have long tried to piggyback off the event with deals of their own, but if it didn’t work, it didn’t matter so much. Back-to-school and holiday shopping were still around the corner, offering ripe opportunities to win sales and customers’ loyalty. 

This year, though, Prime Day is serving as the kickoff to the holiday shopping season because the pandemic has the retail industry betting on an earlier-than-usual start to gift-buying. Big-name chains including Walmart Inc. and Target Corp. have been planning their discounts and inventory strategies accordingly, so losing to Amazon on Prime Day in 2020 effectively means getting trounced on one of the most crucial days of retail’s most crucial season. 

Unfortunately for rivals, Amazon is set up for a hefty Prime Day haul. The e-commerce giant may register $6.2 billion in U.S. sales on its website during the event, which runs through Wednesday, according to a forecast from eMarketer. For context, online sales for the entire industry on Black Friday last year were $7.4 billion, according to Adobe, and Cyber Monday sales were $9.4 billion. On average, daily online sales during last year’s holiday season were about $2.3 billion. Clearly, Prime Day represents a major shock to that pattern. It will likely pull forward sales that would’ve taken place later in the season – and yank some sales toward Amazon that might’ve gone to other retailers.   

It doesn’t help that traditional retailers can’t count on their best competitive advantage against Amazon – their large fleets of physical stores – in the same way this holiday season. Typically, those environments provide important insulation against Amazon because many shoppers still genuinely like to touch or try on goods before buying them. Others view gift-buying as more of a social experience than an errand. But with continuing safety concerns related to Covid-19, even people who still love in-store shopping are, in many cases, going to do less of it this year. That means old-school retailers have no choice but to wage more of this year’s holiday battle on Amazon’s home turf. Their ability to win any online market share on Prime Day will be a key test of how well they will fare at that task over the next couple of months. 

Rivals are certainly working hard to answer Amazon. Best Buy Co.’s website on Tuesday is touting “Black Friday prices,” while Target’s is splashed with “Deal Days” discounts. Legacy chains, including Home Depot Inc., J.C. Penney Co. and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc., are prominently highlighting their curbside pickup services – a way to distinguish themselves from the e-commerce behemoth.     

No matter what, the retail industry is in for an extraordinarily difficult holiday season, given enormous uncertainty about consumers’ willingness to spend amid the public health crisis and economic slump, as well as uncertainty about what kinds of items they’ll opt to buy in this unusual environment. If Prime Day turns out to be the annual retailing muscle flex by Amazon that it is expected to be, it will only add to traditional retailers’ challenge. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.

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