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Black Friday is here — and it’s completely different

Gone are the long lines and crowded malls after retailers rolled out their holiday sales weeks ago and as a record number of shoppers do their buying online.

Black Friday shoppers come and go from a Target store in Falls Church, Va. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

Black Friday sales are in full swing, but Trisha Stuart is unimpressed. The 55-year-old finished her shopping weeks ago — and did it all online.

She spent far less than usual — about $200 on an air fryer for her husband and gift cards for their four adult children — because, she said, “covid has put us on edge.” The retired nurse from Green Valley, Ariz., isn’t traveling this year. And when she does leave the house, she says, it’s mostly to pick up groceries; buying new clothes or housewares feels extravagant during these grim times.

Stuart is like millions of Americans who have tempered their spending since the coronavirus pandemic swept the country and set off a recession: More than 20 million Americans are collecting some form of unemployment benefits. Retailers, in turn, have had to reimagine the most important shopping season of the year with public health in mind. The Black Friday “doorbusters” they once dangled to draw crowds have largely shifted online, and in-store offers are being staggered to allow for social distancing.

Americans spent a record $5.1 billion online on Thanksgiving Day, which is 22 percent higher than last year but lower than projected, according to Adobe Analytics. Because so many consumers started their holiday shopping in October and early November, Black Friday week just doesn’t hold the same frenetic appeal, analysts say. Adobe expects overall online sales to grow 33 percent, to $189 billion, this holiday season.

It is unclear, they said, exactly how the holiday season will play out, especially at a time when coronavirus cases are rising at an alarming rate.

“There are so many unknowns — the economy, covid, unemployment — that could impact how willing customers are to spend this year,” said Scott Stuart, no relation to Trisha Stuart and chief executive of the Chicago-based Turnaround Management Association, a group that represents restructuring professionals. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that, fundamentally, everything has changed. Will there be more stimulus money? Will people be shy about spending? We just don’t know.”

Black Friday 2020: Expect shorter lines, simpler layouts and piles of pajamas

Analysts and shoppers across the country reported lines to get into some stores, such as Best Buy, Lululemon and Bath & Body Works. But department stores and apparel chains, they said, remained largely empty on Friday.

“It’s definitely not as busy as last year,” said Todd Putt, a spokesman for Tysons Corner Center in Virginia, one of the country’s busiest shopping malls. “A lot of sales have already been going on for a while so people don’t feel the same pressure to come out and shop on Black Friday,”

At a Walmart Supercenter in Northwest Washington, the mood early Friday morning was decidedly calm. Signs at the entrance promised “Black Friday Deals for Days” and, indeed, the country’s largest retailer has been rolling out seasonal discounts online and in stores for weeks. Inside, there appeared to be little urgency among the shoppers as they browsed $7 children’s jeans and $49 cookware sets, which were also being offered online. An employee in a neon vest twirled a large plastic candy cane to direct the occasional customer down the store’s one-way aisles.

“No crowds,” said a worker taking a cigarette break outside the store. “A lot of people are shopping online.”

It was a similar story a few miles away at the Macy’s in downtown Washington, where a side lane had been blocked off for curbside pickups. Employees far outnumbered shoppers inside the store.

Beatrice Mintah stopped in for a $30 comforter set around 7 a.m. after finishing her shift as a health-care aide. “I just picked it up and now I’m leaving,” the 39-year-old said, adding that she typically shops online. “This is it for today because of the pandemic.”

The National Retail Federation this week projected healthy gains in holiday spending — 3.6 to 5.2 percent compared with the 3.5 percent average recorded the past five years — driven in part by grocery sales. The estimate suggests Americans will spend $755 billion to $767 billion.

But despite the rosy outlook, the trade group acknowledges there could be some bumps for an industry that was hurting even before the pandemic. Dozens of major brands have filed for bankruptcy this year, and many more have announced sweeping store closures and layoffs. Apparel stores and mall chains, which typically rely on holiday sales for a major chunk of their profits, have been among the hardest hit.

“It’s hard to quantify such uncertainty,” chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said on a call with reporters this week. The latest forecast, he said, is “part science, part judgment and, of course, part luck.”

Black Friday shopping guide: How to snag the best deals

Still, retailers are pinning their hopes on an early online shopping season that they hope will help make up for months of lost sales. Walmart and Target kicked off holiday sales earlier than ever, in October. Others, such as Best Buy, Amazon and Nordstrom, started offering Black Friday deals online on Sunday. (Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

The shopping event looks different in-store, too. Store layouts have been reconfigured — wider walkways, one-way aisles — to discourage browsing. Target is allowing shoppers to circumvent front-door lines by reservation. There are new rules regarding masks, maximum occupancies and temperature checks.

It’s all added up to a subdued Black Friday at malls and strip centers across the country. In Sunrise, Fla., Renee Sainten arrived an hour early for her 10 a.m. shift at the mall, expecting large crowds and an overflowing parking lot. After a decade of working the busy holiday season at Sawgrass Mills outlet mall, she thought she knew what to expect.

She was shocked when she saw how empty it was.

“It’s usually so crowded, even on a regular weekend, that cars are parked on the grass,” said Sainten, 37, who works at the watch chain Tourneau. “Today I found a spot right in the front of the mall and thought, ‘Wow, is it really Black Friday?’ ”

But long-held traditions can be hard to give up. In Clermont, Fla., Jacob Burlingame got in line outside GameStop on Wednesday evening, hoping to snag a PlayStation 5 when the store opened at 7 a.m. on Black Friday. The console, which sells for $499, has been sold out for weeks.

He put Thanksgiving plans with his girlfriend on hold, and spent two nights on the pavement, reading “Kingdom Keepers” and eating cheeseburgers from the McDonald's Dollar Menu.

It’s been a tough year for Burlingame: His grandmother died of covid-19, and he lost his job at Disney World during the pandemic. He works remotely now, handling customer service for a local bank, and said he hoped a PlayStation 5 would help liven up his time at home.

“I wore a mask and staked out my spot for 33 hours,” said Burlingame, 25. “It was the one thing I was really looking forward to.”

But in the end, he didn’t get a PlayStation 5. Although the company’s flier had promised at least two of the consoles per store, workers told him they had only one.

Burlingame went home empty-handed on Friday morning. He put his Thanksgiving turkey in the oven and said it was time for Plan B: Shopping online.

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Lia Dangelico has spent the past several months working from home — and buying online.

She plans to spend about $1,250 on holiday gifts this year, about $200 more than she did a year ago, because she won’t be traveling to see family.

“We always try to make it really special, but this year, since we won’t be together, I want everyone to feel extra special and loved,” said Dangelico, a communications director for a trade association in Springfield, Va. “We’re also super lucky to have secure jobs, so with so much staying in and no travel, we haven’t spent as much this year.”

The 33-year-old says she buys from small businesses, Black-owned shops and secondhand retailers when she can. She’s spent much of the pandemic stocking up on comfort items like incense, candles and a meditation cushion, and is considering buying a treadmill because she canceled her gym membership in the spring. Mostly, though, she’s been buying gifts for her eight siblings.

“It doesn’t make up for not being together,” she said. “But it just feels better.”

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In El Paso, Dominique Olsson, 32, says she’s keeping things simple this Christmas: She’s already ordered T-shirts for her parents, a framed map for her husband and necessities like clothing and a step stool for her 2-year-old son.

“Our financial situation hasn’t changed much — my husband is military, I’m prior military — so there hasn’t been a fear of where our next check will come from,” Olsson said. “But still, I’m not trying to spend very much this year. We just never know what might happen.”

Early in the pandemic, she and her husband canceled family trips to Sweden and St. Louis. But even as they’ve adjusted to the pandemic, she says, she’s choosing more practical gifts this year. Olsson is helping her sister with a car payment and got her three nieces and nephews a six-month subscription to Little Passports, which offers educational activities they can do at home.

“We still want to do something for our family, but we want to make it more personal than just buying things,” she said. “I’m usually conservative with money anyway, but this year that feels even more important.”