The holiday lights and decorations twinkled and glittered just as they always do along Michigan Avenue, but the annual pilgrimage of eager shoppers was reduced to trickle on Black Friday.
It was not unexpected, with coronavirus cases surging across Illinois and the rest of the nation. But it provided some unexpected opportunities for masked shoppers eager for bargains but not the crowds.
“It’s very nice,” said Daniel Gilman, 29, of Franklin Park, who was shopping at North Face. “It’s a ghost town.”
Quiet enough to hear the echo of coins rattling in the cups of the homeless up and down the city’s best-known shopping strip.
Elaina Boryszczuk, 39, and her daughter, Kaelyn, 7, were waiting outside the American Girl Place store for it to open. They appeared to be the only ones. They were in town from Kalamazoo, Michigan.
“I’m very shocked about that,” Boryszczuk said. “But I think a lot of people ordered online.”
Despite the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, Boryszczuk said she wasn’t particularly worried about her or her daughter’s safety.
“We should be safe and sanitized, and hopefully they only let so many people in at a time,” she said.
Sandy Byard and her boyfriend, Brian Markowski, both in their 50s, were on their way to Macy’s on State Street for some Frango Mints. They were in town from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the holiday weekend.
They could see the good and the bad of the strangely quiet streets.
“No traffic on the expressway, we found a parking spot on the street and there’s nobody here,” Byard said.
It felt nothing like the holiday season, they agreed.
“It barely feels like Christmas,” Markowski said, despite a backdrop of Macy’s famous holiday-themed windows.
“It’s depressing. It’s so dead down here,” Byard said.
“Next year it will be better, I’m sure,” Markowski said.
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 small beacon of hope for struggling retailers after months of slumping sales and businesses toppling into bankruptcy.
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. It’s still vital to get their consumers spending and get consumers into the holiday mood.”
Macy’s Herald Square in New York featured such deals as 50% off handbags and 60% off women’s and men’s coats, but there was just a trickle of shoppers around 7 a.m., an hour after the store opened. There was no one in line at the service area where customers pick up their online orders. Workers could be seen sanitizing door knobs and windows. The scene looked similarly empty at the nearby Manhattan Mall.
At the Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, New Jersey, parking spots were easy to find shortly after the mall opened at 7 a.m. Inside, there was a line at video game store GameStop and several police officers to control the crowd.
Things were quiet at a Walmart in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. The nation’s largest retailer has been offering its best deals online this month to deter any crowds from showing up on Black Friday.
Mike Mitchell went to a Walmart at 7:30 a.m. expecting to see it packed and the doorbuster deals gone, like past Black Fridays. Instead, the lot was mostly empty. What he wanted — a ride-on battery powered Chevy truck for his daughter — was still in stock, even though it was discounted to $98 from $149.
“It was kind of surprising,” says Mitchell, who lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. “There was no line. It was very easy.”
Several hundreds shoppers were 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, kicking them off the Monday before Thanksgiving. Renslow said many retail tenants pivoted more online and added curbside pickup. She said she was confident that many tenants, particularly those that focus on health and wellness, casual apparel and home, will have a strong holiday season.
“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, including at supermarkets. Instead, the health agency recommends shopping online, visiting outdoor markets or using curbside pickup, where workers bring orders to you in the parking lot.
The day after Thanksgiving has been losing its luster as the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season for the past several years, with more stores were offering holiday discounts throughout the month. Still, Black Friday has remained the busiest day of the year, according to ShopperTrak, and is expected to hold that title again this year.
The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, has taken an optimistic view, 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. Holiday sales have averaged gains of 3.5% over the past five years.
“After all they’ve been through, we think there’s going to be a psychological factor that they owe it to themselves and their families to have a better-than-normal holiday,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz.
Retailers were successful in persuading shoppers to spend early by pushing big discounts in mid-October. And shoppers have shown their willingness to spend for other holidays like Easter and Halloween.
Thanksgiving Day hit a 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, and kid scooters, HP laptops, and Apple Watches, according to Adobe. The popularity of Netflix’s “Queen’s Gambit” has boosted sales for chess-related items by more than threefold compared to the previous month, Adobe said.
Black Friday is projected to generate $10 billion in online sales, a 39% bump from the year ago period, according to Adobe Analytics. 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.
Contributing: The Associated Press