NEW YORK — 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.
In normal times, Black Friday is the busiest shopping day of the year, drawing millions of shoppers eager to get started on their holiday spending.
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 do more of their purchases 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. 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 at 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.
At a popular shopping area in Pinellas Park, Florida, several storefronts were empty, and the only line was at a plasma donation center.
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 convincing 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 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, 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.
The pandemic has already benefited Amazon, which continues to seal its dominance in the online space as jittery shoppers click on their devices instead of venturing into stores. Likewise, big box chains like Walmart and Target that were allowed to stay open during the spring lockdowns fared far better than department stores and other non-essential retailers that were forced to close. That disparity helped speed up bankruptcy filings of more than 40 chains, including J.C. Penney and J.Crew, and resulted in hundreds of stores closings.
Department stores and other clothing stores that haven't yet recovered from the closures during the spring will have a hard time making up for lost sales, says Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics LLC , a retail research firm.
For the fiscal third quarter, mall-based retailers saw their profits down 20% while big box stores and other retailers that operate outside a traditional mall posted a 19% increase, according to RetailMetrics' tally of roughly 100 retailers. For the fiscal fourth quarter, mall-based retailers are expected to see profits down 31%, while off-mall stores should see profits up 1%.