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Covid fears appear to deter big crowds seeking Black Friday deals at stores

Harriet Alexander
·6-min read
<p>Shoppers wait for a video games store to open on Black Friday, at the Tysons Corner Center in Virginia on 27 November, 2020 </p> (REUTERS)

Shoppers wait for a video games store to open on Black Friday, at the Tysons Corner Center in Virginia on 27 November, 2020


Shoppers across the US were taking advantage of Black Friday sales, some throwing coronavirus caution to the wind by gathering in large groups, amid concerns of public health officials about a nationwide surge in cases.

The usual mad dash to the entrance had gone, however. Instead a handful of hardy bargain-hunters queued outside, in socially-distanced lines, to wait for the doors to open.

The traditional Thanksgiving openings had been cancelled by many retailers, hoping instead to lure people to spend big the following day.

Yet the pandemic appeared to be keeping footfall low.

On Thanksgiving, the US marked its 24th day in a row with more than 100,000 new cases. The numbers of those in hospital hit a new high, for the 17th consecutive day, with more than 90,400 patients being tended to by medical professionals, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

More than 1,200 Covid-19 deaths were reported on Thursday. A forecast from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicted that an additional 60,000 people could lose their lives over the next three weeks.

Black Friday is typically the busiest shopping day of the year, drawing millions of people eager to get started on their holiday spending.

In Amherst, a suburb of Buffalo, New York, there was a small crowd but nothing like in previous years.

In Atlanta, Lauren Casto told that she had been shopping since 5am, starting with Walmart and Target before finding herself in line at Victoria’s Secret at Lenox Square at 11 am.

Ms Casto said that she has shopped on Black Friday before, but found this year very different.

”People aren’t lined up like they normally are,” she said. “No crazy people pushing, running and doorbusters. Nothing like that this year.”

To try and lure shoppers, stores were beefing up their safety protocols to reassure wary customers.

For those who couldn’t be reassured, stores are moving their "doorbuster deals" online and ramping up curbside pickup options as a last grasp at sales before the year ends.

“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.”

Customers shop at Macys department store in New York on Black FridayAFP via Getty Images
Customers shop at Macys department store in New York on Black FridayAFP via Getty Images

Macy’s Herald Square in New York featured such deals as 50 per cent off handbags and 60 per cent off women’s and men’s coats, but there was just a trickle of shoppers at around 7am, 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 7am. 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.

In Minnesota, the expected crowds had not materialised.

The Walmart in West St. Paul was staffed up for a morning surge, but more than an hour after throwing open its doors at 5am, only a trickle of shoppers were moving about for Black Friday deals, the Star Tribune reported.

Macy’s in New York did not have the usual crowds on Black FridayAFP via Getty Images
Macy’s in New York did not have the usual crowds on Black FridayAFP via Getty Images

In Chicago, shoppers were taken aback at how quiet things were.

Andrea Espejo, 41, of Andersonville, told the Chicago Tribune she was one of about 40 shoppers waiting to go inside Target when the doors were unlocked at 7am.

She and her daughter, already had been to Macy’s, where they bought three jackets, but she said the shops were “pretty dead”.

Maria Lopez, of Burbank, who often shops on Black Friday, said she was only visiting one store this year out of concerns of contracting the coronavirus. Lopez bought a 42-inch television from Best Buy.

“It’s so sad,” Ms Lopez, 42, told the paper. “I’ve been out since 6am and there were no long lines. It’s definitely not the same like years prior.”

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 per cent and 5.2 per cent over 2019 compared with a 4 per cent increase the year before.

“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.

“There are risks to the economy if the virus continues to spread, but as long as consumers remain confident and upbeat, they will spend for the holiday season.”

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.

Online sales could realize even bigger gains heading into the holidays.

Black Friday is projected to generate $10 billion in online sales, a 39 per cent bump from the year ago period, according to Adobe Analytics, which measures sales at 80 of the top 100 US online retailers.

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 per cent 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 per cent while big box stores and other retailers that operate outside a traditional mall posted a 19 per cent increase, according to RetailMetrics’ tally of roughly 100 retailers.

For the fiscal fourth quarter, mall-based retailers are expected to see profits down 31 per cent, while off-mall stores should see profits up 1 per cent.

AP contributed to this report

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