COVID Keeps Black Friday Crowds Thin, Shoppers Shift Online

black friday sales
Black Friday shoppers at Bass Pro Shops in Foxboro, Mass. (Mark Stockwell/The Sun Chronicle via AP)

The raging coronavirus pandemic kept crowds thin at malls and stores across the country on Black Friday, but a surge in online shopping offered a beacon of hope for struggling retailers after months of slumping sales and businesses toppling into bankruptcy.

In normal times, Black Friday is the busiest shopping day of the year, drawing millions of people eager to get started on the year-end shopping season.

But these are not normal times: A spike in coronavirus cases is threatening the economy’s fitful recovery from the sudden plunge in the spring. Crowds at stores were dramatically diminished as shoppers shift online.

Many retailers closed their doors on Thanksgiving Day but beefed up their safety protocols to reassure wary customers about coming in on Black Friday. Stores have also moved their doorbuster deals online and ramped up curbside pickup options as a last grasp at sales before the year ends and they head into the dark days of winter with the pandemic still raging.

“Black Friday is still critical,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “No retailer wants it to be tarnished.”

Macy’s Herald Square in New York offered 50% off handbags and 60% off women’s and men’s coats, but there was just a trickle of shoppers an hour after the store opened. Workers sanitized door knobs and windows.

Streets around The Domain, the most popular outdoor mall in Austin, Texas, were mostly empty. Store employees counted masked shoppers trickling in to stay within the state’s 75% capacity limit.

At the Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, New Jersey, parking spots were easy to find. Inside, there was a line at video game store GameStop and several police officers to control the crowd.

Before Black Friday, GameStop teased that it would have a limited supply of the new $500 PlayStation 5 game console for sale only at its stores, in contrast to other retailers that offered the hot ticket-items only online. But some shoppers complained on social media about showing up in person only to find the PlayStation 5 unavailable. GameStop did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Several hundred shoppers lined up ahead of the 8 a.m. opening at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, which normally attracts several thousand on Black Friday.

The smaller crowds were planned, said Jill Renslow, Mall of America’s senior vice president of business development. The mall spread out the Black Friday deals over eight days, and many retail tenants pivoted more to online and curbside pickup.

“It feels good, and it’s the right thing to do to keep everybody safe,” Renslow said “Everyone is shopping a little differently, but that’s OK.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled shopping in crowded stores during the holidays a “higher risk” activity and says people should limit any in-person shopping.

The day after Thanksgiving has been losing its luster as the unofficial start to the year-end shopping season for the past several years, with more stores offering discounts throughout the month. Still, Black Friday is expected to remain the busiest shopping day of the year even this year, according to ShopperTrak.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, is predicting that shoppers will be looking for reasons to celebrate. The trade group expects sales for the November and December period to increase between 3.6% and 5.2% over 2019, compared with a 4% increase the year before. Sales during the year-end shopping season have averaged gains of 3.5% over the past five years.

Thanksgiving Day hit a new record online as spending reached $5.1 billion, up 21.5% compared to a year ago, according to Adobe Analytics, which measures sales at 80 of the top 100 U.S. online retailers. Among the most popular items were Lego sets, Barbie toys, kid scooters, HP laptops, and Apple Watches, according to Adobe.

Walmart, which spread out its Black Friday deals over several weekends, said its most popular deals included this year’s new gaming consoles, wireless headphones, home appliances like the Keurig K-Compact and Anker Edufy Robotic Vacuum.

Black Friday is projected to generate $10 billion in online sales, a 39% bump from the year-ago period, according to Adobe. And Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, will remain the biggest online shopping day of the year with $12.7 billion in sales, a 35% jump.

The pandemic has already benefited Amazon, which continues to seal its dominance in the online space. Likewise, big-box stores like Walmart and Target, which were allowed to stay open during the spring lockdowns, have enjoyed further gains from ramping up their online services, analysts say.

Meanwhile, stores considered “non-essential” that had been forced to close because of state and local restrictions are among the hardest-hit in the pandemic, with more than 40 chains, including J.C. Penney and J.Crew, filing for bankruptcy.

“Is there going to be a surge in apparel gifting, footwear gifting to help out any of the specialty retailers and do they have the digital presence to actually capture the attention of the consumers?” said Sonia Lapinsky, managing director of AlixPartner’s retail practice. “That remains to be seen, and I think it will be more on the grim side.”

Black Friday was the last thing on the minds of some hurt the most by the pandemic. At a popular shopping area in St. Petersburg, Florida, several storefronts were empty, and the only line was at a plasma donation center.

Leonard Chester, 58, said he hoped to get at least $55 for the donation, saying that he needed to eat. When reminded that it was Black Friday, he let out a laugh and pointed to the line around him.

“This says that people are hurting. The economy’s bad,” said Chester, who was laid off from his job two months ago.