Business / Economy

In era of online retail, Black Friday still lures American crowds

AP

It would have been easy to turn on their computers at home over plates of leftover turkey and take advantage of the Black Friday deals most retailers now offer online.

But across the country, thousands of shoppers flocked to stores on Thanksgiving or woke up before dawn the next day to take part in this most famous ritual of American consumerism.

Shoppers spent their holiday lined up outside the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, by 4 p.m. Thursday, and the crowd had swelled to 3,000 people by the time doors opened at 5 a.m. Friday. In Ohio, a group of women was so determined, they booked a hotel room Thursday night to be closer to the stores. In New York City, one woman went straight from a dance club to a department store in the middle of the night.

Many shoppers said Black Friday is as much about the spectacle as it is about doorbuster deals.

Kati Anderson said she stopped at Cumberland Mall in Atlanta Friday morning for discounted clothes as well as “the people watching.” Her friend, Katie Nasworthy, said she went to the mall instead of shopping online because she likes to see the Christmas decorations.

“It doesn’t really feel like Christmas until now,” said Kim Bryant, shopping in suburban Denver with her daughter and her daughter’s friend, who had lined up at 5:40 a.m., then sprinted inside when the doors opened at 6 a.m.

Brick-and-mortar stores have worked hard to prove they can counter the competition from online behemoth Amazon. From Macy’s to Target and Walmart, retailers are blending their online and store shopping experience with new tools like digital maps on smart phones and more options for shoppers to buy online and pick up at stores. And customers, frustrated with long checkout lines, can check out at Walmart and other stores with a salesperson in store aisles.

Consumers nearly doubled their online orders that they picked up at stores from Wednesday to Thanksgiving, according to Adobe Analytics, which tracks online spending.

Priscilla Page, 28, punched her order number into a kiosk near the entrance of a Walmart in Louisville, Kentucky. She found a good deal online for a gift for her boyfriend, then arrived at the store to retrieve it.

“I’ve never Black Friday-shopped before,” she said, as employees delivered her bag minutes later. “I’m not the most patient person ever. Crowds, lines, waiting, it’s not really my thing. This was a lot easier.”

The holiday shopping season presents a big test for the U.S. economy, whose overall growth so far this year has relied on a burst of consumer spending. Americans upped their spending during the first half of 2018 at the strongest pace in four years, yet retail sales gains have tapered off recently. The sales totals over the next month will be a good indicator as to whether consumers simply paused to catch their breath or feel less optimistic about the economy in 2019.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, is expecting holiday retail sales to increase as much as 4.8 percent over 2017 for a total of $720.89 billion. The sales growth marks a slowdown from last year’s 5.3 percent, but remains healthy.

The retail economy is also tilting steeply toward online shopping. Over the past 12 months, purchases at non-store retailers such as Amazon have jumped 12.1 percent as sales at traditional department stores have slumped 0.3 percent. Adobe Analytics reported Thursday that Thanksgiving reached a record $3.7 billion in online retail sales, up 28 percent from the same year ago period. For Black Friday, online spending was on track to hit more than $6.4 billion, according to Adobe.

Target reported that shoppers bought big ticket items like TVs, iPads, and Apple Watches. Among the most popular toy deals were Lego, L.O.L. Surprise from MGA Entertainment and Mattel’s Barbie. It said gamers picked up video game consoles like Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One.

Others reported stumbling onto more obscure savings. At a Cincinnati mall, Bethany Carrington scored a $29 all-in-one trimmer for her husband’s nose hair needs and, for $17, “the biggest Mr. Potato Head I’ve ever seen.”

Black Friday itself has morphed from a single day when people got up early to score doorbusters into a whole month of deals. Plenty of major stores including Macy’s, Walmart and Target started their deals on Thanksgiving evening. But some families are sticking by their Black Friday traditions.

“We boycotted Thursday shopping; that’s the day for family. But the experience on Friday is just for fun,” said Michelle Wise, shopping at Park Meadows Mall in Denver with her daughters, 16-year-old Ashleigh and 14-year-old Avery.

By mid-day Friday, there had not been widespread reports of the deal-inspired chaos that has become central to Black Friday lore — fist fights over discounted televisions or stampedes toward coveted sale items.

Two men at an Alabama mall got into a fight, and one of the men opened fire, shooting the other man and a 12-year-old bystander, both of whom were taken to the hospital with injuries. Police shot and killed the gunman. Authorities have not said whether the incident was related to Black Friday shopping or if it stemmed from an unrelated dispute.

Candice Clark arrived at the Walmart in Louisville with her 19-year-old daughter Desiree Douthitt, looked around and remarked at how calm it all seemed. They have long been devotees of Black Friday deals and for years braved the crowds and chaos. Clark’s son, about 10 years ago, got hit in the head with a griddle as shoppers wrestled over it. They saw one woman flash a Taser and threaten to use it on anyone who came between her and her desired fondue pot.

They’ve watched over the years as the traditional madness of the day has dissipated as shopping transitioned to online and stores stretched their sales from a one-day sprint to a days-long marathon.

“It seems pretty normal in here,” said Roy Heller, as he arrived at the Louisville Walmart, a little leery of Black Friday shopping, but pleasantly surprised to find that he didn’t even have to stand in line.

He had tried to buy his son a toy robot on Amazon, but it was sold out. Friday morning, he frantically searched the internet and found one single robot left, at a Walmart 25 miles from his home. He bought it online and arrived an hour later to pick it up.

Employees delivered his bag, he held it up and declared: “I got the last one in Louisville!”