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Count on busier and easier online shopping this holiday season

In this composite photo, an Amazon Prime logo appears on the side of a delivery van as it departs an Amazon Warehouse location Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in Dedham, Mass, people walk through the parking lot at a Target store in Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 and signage is pictured at a Walmart store Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Oklahoma City.
Steven Senne and Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press

During a pandemic, people plan to shop online more. Consumers are already taking advantage of early deals, but it could also mean product shortages and shipping delays.

Be prepared to shop early for the holidays because retailers aren’t waiting until Black Friday to offer savings. Amazon, Target and Walmart have already offered huge discounts on millions of items this month.

The National Retail Federation’s annual consumer holiday survey found 43% of shoppers say they won’t start shopping for the season until November. NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay says it’s encouraging everyone to get started.

“In a year that has been full of uncertainty, we encourage consumers to avoid the last-minute stresses of the holiday season like long lines and shipping delays,” he said. “Retailers are ready with inventory and sales, and there’s no reason to wait until Thanksgiving weekend to kick off your gift shopping.”

The country has already seen shortages in everything from trampolines to toilet paper. And with 59% of people surveyed saying they will shop online more this year than last, who knows what demand and shipping delays could do to your holiday gifts.

But retailers are making it easier than ever to shop in new ways.

Walmart launched a new membership program called Walmart+ in September. It’s a membership program where you pay $98 yearly or $12.95 each month for some great perks. Members get free unlimited deliveries from stores on more than 160,000 items with a $35 minimum order. You also get fuel discounts and more benefits still to come.

But arguably the best reason to pay for Walmart+ is that members shopping in-store can scan items with their phone as they place them in their cart. They can check out on the app, scan a QR code at self checkout and walk out the door. I’ve used this feature at Sam’s Club and it saves so much time and hassle. I do see a benefit of using this at Sam’s Club over Walmart, though. After scanning items at Sam’s, there’s no waiting in a checkout line at all. You just show your phone receipt to the employee who normally checks receipts as you leave. Looks like at Walmart, you could still be stuck in a long line at self checkout, waiting to scan the QR code.

Even so, eliminating the double-handling of the merchandise by eliminating the need to scan items at checkout is huge. Customers will just need to decide if it’s worth $98 a year.

Instagram continues to add new ways to shop straight from the app. Users can now buy products they see on IGTV, and Reels will get the shopping tool later this year. Brands can now make it easier for customers to purchase items without leaving Instagram and going to another website. In-app checkout has been available in Stories, Explore and in normal feed posts, but by the end of the year, you’ll be able to buy something from pretty much anywhere on the app without ever leaving it. You’ll have to set up a payment method, but after that, if you see something you like on Instagram, you can own it with one click of the “buy now” button.

With Instagram reporting that 87% of people say influencers have inspired them to make a purchase, looks like that button may be getting a lot of use.

Many of us are doing our best to stay out of physical stores and shop online as much as possible these days. But for the older people who may not be as technologically savvy as their teenage grandkids, online shopping can be a learning process. Instacart partners with retailers so its employees can be personal shoppers for you. You place your order online, and a Instacart shopper delivers it right to your door. Many grocery stores already have their own personal shoppers, but Instacart would be a good option if you don’t always shop at the same grocery store. Plus, it has partnered with retailers that sell more than food items, like Costco, Petco and Sephora.

But the company thought some of its older customers may need a little help figuring out how to use its services.

Instacart developed a Senior Support Service for those over age 60 so that they can actually talk with someone on the phone and have “longer, more in-depth conversations” with a specialist.

Instacart reports it has brought more than 60,000 senior customers online in September.

“Many seniors are less accustomed to using an app for ingrained household tasks like grocery shopping,” said Mark Killik, vice president of Instacart’s Care customer support team. “Instacart’s Senior Support Service is designed to help them build confidence to use online grocery delivery more often and more independently.”

Each order has a delivery fee that typically starts at $3.99 and a service fee unless you pay $99 for an annual membership. But that could be a small price to pay for seniors or anyone trying to minimize contact during the pandemic.

Whether you’re buying groceries online or trying to get a jump on your holiday shopping, companies are creating easier ways for you to get what you need without having to go into the store.