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This Black Friday, shoppers are back in malls

Americans returned to in-person shopping this year even as a new coronavirus variant is raising alarms

Shoppers on multiple levels at Tysons Corner Mall on Black Friday. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Americans swarmed into malls and stores on Black Friday in search of discounts and pre-pandemic normalcy, even as the emergence of a new coronavirus variant raised alarms about what it may portend for public health and the global economy.

The discovery of the variant known as B. 1.1.529, which is thought to be particularly contagious, was announced Thursday by South African officials. It quickly spurred the United States, as well as France, Japan and other nations, to ban or limit travel from the region. Stock markets plummeted, with the Dow Jones industrial average recording its worst single-day drop of 2021.

But that did little to deter shoppers from venturing out the day after Thanksgiving. Stores and shopping centers across the country opened as early as midnight in hopes of resurrecting an American tradition, which was losing favor even before the pandemic as consumers did more of their buying online.

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In New Jersey, American Dream, the nation’s newest and largest mall, promised gifts valued as much as $800 for the first 500 shoppers, along with a dance party, candy cane chute and ice skating with Santa and his elves. The Irvine Spectrum Center in Southern California offered free valet parking, ice skating and carousel rides.

And in Northern Virginia, Tysons Corner Center, which has been preparing for months for a Black Friday surge, kicked off its festivities at 6 a.m. Shoppers arrived in droves, apparently eager to make up for lost time. Many said covid-related fears had kept them home last year.

“I didn’t come last year because of the pandemic, but I’m not worried about it anymore,” said Mary Furlong, 89, of Lewiston, N.Y., who was in town visiting her nephews. “I’m actually surprised it’s not more crowded here.”

Many stores were limiting the number of people allowed inside, leading to long lines throughout the mall. By 8:30 a.m., nearly 40 people were waiting to get into Lululemon. There were a dozen mothers and daughters in front of the American Girl Store. Outside Blessed, a sneaker shop, the line was about 20 deep.

But compared with Black Fridays before covid, it was downright relaxed, said Ron Richardson of Southeast D.C., who had come in search of Yeezy sneakers and an Apple Watch for his wife.

“It’s perfect out here today — not too crowded because there’s a lot of scared people who stayed home,” he said, noting that he shopped online last year “because there were so many unknowns.”

Shifts in pandemic shopping habits meant thinner Black Friday crowds in stores on Nov. 26. (Video: Reuters)

Mall officials said traffic had ticked up the past month, and the on-site Hyatt Regency is booked through the weekend.

“We’re seeing a lot of pent-up demand for in-store shopping,” said senior marketing manager Lindsay Petak. “People want the holiday mall experience they’ve been missing.”

But big questions remain, for both shoppers and retailers. After more than a year and half of pandemic-related uncertainties, supply chains are tangled, prices are rising and shipping delays are rampant. Consumers are left to wonder whether they’ll find what they need. Store and mall operators, meanwhile, can only watch how the day plays out. Analysts say the new variant only adds to the confusion.

“Foot traffic was starting to improve, but now there’s a new variant to worry about,” said Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester. “If you didn’t already have reasons to avoid going to the store, you do now.”

Walmart, Target, Amazon and Best Buy all began rolling out holiday discounts in October. And nearly two-thirds of Americans had already begun their holiday shopping, according to the National Retail Federation, fueling last month’s surge in retail sales. Now the industry is waiting to see whether that momentum will extend into the final stretch of the year — and Black Friday is the ultimate test.

“There will be empty shelves, there will be fewer discounts, but negative headlines notwithstanding, this is also going to be an epic holiday season for retailers,” said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. “We’ve been in lockdown for a year and half, and absent some really unseemly uptick in covid, people are going to want to shop. But the world shut down for the better part of 2020 and it’s not reopening at the stroke of a light switch.”

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Roughly 2 in 3 Americans planned to shop during the Thanksgiving weekend, including 108 million who say they’ll buy online or in-stores on Black Friday, according to the National Retail Federation. The number of consumers expecting to visit a mall or shopping center over the long weekend is expected to double, from 38 to 76 percent, according to ICSC, formerly the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Overall holiday sales are expected to grow as much as 10.5 percent, to $859 billion, from last year, according to the retail trade group. Consumers, on average, are expected to spend $648 on holiday gifts, about 2 percent less than they did in 2019.

Help Desk reporter Heather Kelly looks at what might cause holiday shopping headaches and how to avoid them. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

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But that spike in demand coincides with constrained supply, as retailers of all sizes struggle to get enough inventory to last through the end of the year. In October, online shoppers encountered 2 billion out-of-stock messages, more than quadruple what they did two years ago, according to data from Adobe Analytics. Electronics, jewelry and clothing were among the most affected categories, followed by home goods and pet products.

The largest chains have been stockpiling holiday inventory for months and, in some cases, chartering their own ships and planes to bring over merchandise. But analysts say an early start to the buying season is starting to wipe out shelves earlier than expected.

At J. Crew, which kicked off its 40 percent-off Black Friday sale on Tuesday, customers are beginning — and finishing — their holiday shopping earlier than they did before the pandemic, according to Lisa Greenwald, the company’s chief merchandising officer. Best Buy has seen a similar surge in early store traffic and expects more customers to buy in person than last year, according to chief executive Corie Barry.

“We are ready for more customers in our stores this Black Friday,” Barry said in a call with reporters this week. “But I still think it will feel distinctly different than shopping seasons of two, three years ago where you had huge lines and crushes at the front of the door.”

The big-box chain also is doubling down on in-store and curbside pickup options and free next-day delivery to accommodate those who would rather buy online, she said. Analysts say such hybrid shopping — scanning store shelves before buying online, for example, or opting to pick up online purchases in person — has become a bigger priority for both retailers and consumers during the pandemic.

“Shopping has become a big blur,” said Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “It’s no longer about one or the other. There are a lot of things that are easier to do online, and some things that are more fun to do in stores.”

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But on Friday, many shoppers said the deals at the Tysons mall were disappointing. H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch and Cotton: On had large signs advertising 30 percent off everything, which was the same discount they were offering online.

“I’m looking for good deals but the sales are the same as usual,” said Patricia Suryanto, 21, who arrived at 7 a.m. in search of clothes. She purchased a few things at Zara and planned to stop by Lululemon, Uniqlo and the Lego Store. “Compared to other Black Fridays, there seems to be less here."

Candice Dixon, 34, had arrived with her cousin. But given covid fears, large crowds and the lack of good deals, she said it hadn’t been worth it.

“I’ve never shopped on Black Friday and I never will again,” she said, waiting outside H&M. “There are too many people. I’m vaccinated but it’s still making me anxious.”

She stopped in at Banana Republic, where signs promised 40 percent off the entire purchase. But it turned out the cashmere beanie and scarf she’d picked out were excluded from the deal, setting her back $125.

“I thought twice about it and said, okay, fine, I’ll buy it,” she said. “But next time I’m shopping online.”

Kathy Tetzlaff usually does all of her holiday shopping in stores on Christmas Eve. But this year, jolted by headlines warning of product shortages and shipping delays, she started buying online in October. By early November, she’d spent $700 on gifts — including an air fryer for her daughter and ride-on bumper cars for her grandchildren — and declared herself done.

“They kept saying ‘order early,’ so I thought I better get with it and start buying,” said Tezlaff, 61, who lives in Saranac, Mich., and is retired from after a 30-year career in manufacturing. “So now I’m done, sitting here twiddling my thumbs and trying not to buy more.”

Aside from one hiccup — the pink bumper cars she’d hoped to buy were sold out, so she bought red — Tezlaff says everything has gone smoothly. Her orders from Walmart and Amazon arrived within a few days, and she found better-than-expected discounts on everything on her list. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“You can get a good deal any day of the year, so what’s the point of waiting for Black Friday?” she said. “Last year I was running into Target, Burlington [Coat Factory] and Bath & Body Works on Christmas Eve. But this year I’m happy I started early.”

In Fort Mill, S.C., Sherrie Drepaul stopped by Target and Walmart last weekend to buy toys for her children but was surprised by how bare the shelves were.

“The Lego section was empty, Barbies were sold out and a lot of the things in the toy catalogue were just straight up not available,” the 39-year-old said. “It’s like, if you didn’t start in May, you missed out.”

Drepaul ended up buying most of her gifts online, where she toggled through four or five browsers to find the best deals. And, she says, she had to find stand-ins for many of the items on her children’s lists: Instead of the National Geographic Kids Chimpanzee Care & Nurture Vet Set her 9-year-old requested, she bought a unicorn doctor set. And when she saw that all toys from her 6-year-old son’s favorite TV show, “Bluey,” were sold out, she sprang instead for “Paw Patrol” toys and a “Star Wars” Grogu plushie. In all, she spent about $500 on toys, roughly the same as in previous years.

“I had to be creative,” she said. “It was like, ‘How can I find something that’s close to what you want, without disappointing everyone on Christmas morning?”

Antonio Rojas woke up at 5:30 a.m. Friday to go to two malls and a Best Buy near his home in Passaic, N.J. He bought 10 Blu-Rays, including “In the Heights” and “Godzilla vs. Kong,” but couldn’t find many of the other items he was looking for, including an Xbox controller and memory card.

“It kind of felt like, why did I wake up early for this?” said Rojas, 31, who works in a warehouse and is keeping a close eye on the new variant. “I’m not panicking about the virus yet but I’m still going to shop online from now on.”