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Black Friday isn’t what it used to be. Here’s why.

The traditional start of the holiday shopping season is expected to be more subdued than years past, but it won’t be for lack of trying

Black Friday shoppers take a moment to rest in massage chairs at the Opry Mills Mall in Nashville on Nov. 25. (Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images)
7 min

DALLAS — Americans hit malls and big box stores — or just stuck to their shopping apps — in hopes of snagging Black Friday deals as retailers braced for a more subdued spending season.

Despite the day’s dwindling relevance — it’s morphed into a months-long sale pitch — merchants of all sizes dug in. But early indications suggest crowds were thinner — in line with analyst expectations that high inflation, an ever-growing shopping window and simple fatigue would weigh on consumers.

When Susan Cluse, her daughter Troi, and sister, Patricia Cormier arrived at NorthPark Center mall here, they were struck by the paucity of shoppers, even hours after their 9 a.m. arrival.

“Normally it’s packed and you could barely move,” Cormier, 60, said.

Susan Cluse, 63, said this is the only time of year she likes to shop. This year, though, she’s disappointed, noting that the discounts at places like Urban Outfitters and shoe seller Clarks were not as generous as she’s seen before. “We’re not finding the deals.”

For retailers, it’s not for lack of trying. Many large chains have been rolling out Black Friday specials since October, partially to offload a glut of inventory. But they’re also absorbing higher labor and supply chain costs, sapping their margins.

“I think there’s more emphasis this year than we’ve seen in years past,” said Adam Davis, managing director of the retail division at Wells Fargo Capital Finance. “Retailers getting the consumer’s share of wallet is crucial and so they want to try to … lock in those sales.”

And though consumers have been more savvy and strategic about how they spend their money, showing remarkable resilience this year in light of stubbornly high inflation, cracks are forming. Prices jumped 7.7 percent in October from the year-ago period, according to federal data released earlier this month. Though still far above normal levels, it qualified as an improvement based on the year’s trajectory. Even wealthier Americans are feeling pinched, polls show. They’re still buying, but showing more restraint.

Inflation could steal Christmas, but shoppers are finding ways around it

“We are in unique economic situations — inflation has been at a 40-year high and a lot of families’ budgets are being squeezed from all fronts,” said Jie Zhang, a professor of marketing at the University of Maryland. “So there isn’t as much enthusiasm to open up wallets coming into this holiday shopping season.”

Consumers are still spending much of their budgets on necessities like food and gasoline, which was reflected in last week’s Census Bureau retail report that showed sales surged 1.3 percent in October. Economists and policymakers watch consumer spending closely because it accounts for more than two-thirds of the U.S. economy. Cooling demand raises recession fears.

As Viola Brown made her way through an outlet mall southeast of Seattle with two of her friends on Friday morning, the vibe was decidedly “peaceful.”

The trio had traveled from their homes in British Columbia and stayed the night in northern Washington to shop. It’s a long-standing tradition — Brown and friend Amanda Montgomery even used to have 36-hour Black Friday marathons. Fueled by coffee and car naps, they’d buy most of their Christmas presents.

The crowd at the Auburn outlet mall was calmer than they’re accustomed to, a welcome way to start the day before hitting their next stop, another outlet mall to the north that’s always “chaos.”

Allison Richards makes most of her purchases online. But every year, she and her mom venture out together on Black Friday in search of deals and some time together.

“It’s nice just to get out of your house with your mother,” Richards said.

Back in Dallas, Cormier and the Cluses began their holiday shopping at 5 a.m. — a tradition they’ve had for so long, they can’t remember when it started.

“We went around the city,” Cormier said.

They started at Old Navy, then Bath and Body Works, then another Old Navy and finally J. Crew before arriving around 9 a.m. at the NorthPark mall. They planned to go to Macy’s next.

In-person turnout has been noticeably different this year, Cluse’s daughter, Troi, 31, said. She was surprised there weren’t lines outside of stores that opened up first thing in the morning.

“Now that everybody is doing Black Friday online, there were barely any people,” she said.

A short line of shoppers lined up outside the Lego store at the NorthPark mall before it opened. But one of the first people through the door was not there for Black Friday but for a new release — the Eiffel Tower, which at more than 10,000 pieces is one of the largest builds they’ve ever had.

“I don’t think we’ve ever really done Black Friday,” Leah Nutkis, 20, said as an oversized yellow bag rested beside her. She and her mother, Stacy Nutkis, 54, were at the mall for Leah’s birthday — a milestone typically marked with a new Lego set each year.

They generally prefer to avoid the in-person experience. “I guess we’re an internet family and do a lot of online shopping,” Stacy Nutkis said.

Over the last few years the novelty of Black Friday, which got its name because the rush of sales could change the retailers’ books from red to black, has slowly diminished.

The shopping day was once synonymous with doorbuster deals and long lines before dawn. Sunil Singh, 61, used to look forward to it — not just for the steep discounts on tech gadgets but also because it meant spending time with his son. The two had a tradition of lining up before sunrise outside of Best Buy in the San Fransisco Bay area in anticipation of its opening.

“That whole waking up at 4 a.m., lining up, you know, drinking hot cider and coffee in the line, waiting for two hours, chatting with people, it was just a really fun time,” said Singh, of Mountain View, Calif.

But when his son grew up and online shopping became easier and more prolific, there was little need to show up for in-person sales.

“The deals, you can get them online,” he said. “You’re getting such great deals weeks, 10 days ahead. So, it’s no longer that meaningful.”

“It’s lost its novelty,” Singh added.

How to survive holiday shopping

The rise of e-commerce splintered the Black Friday shopping experience. It’s longer and has more purchasing entry points: websites, apps and in-store, said Harley Finkelstein, the president of e-commerce platform Shopify.

“I think Black Friday, Cyber Monday [have] sort of morphed from a weekend into a season,” Finkelstein added. “And I think consumers like that because it means they can get more of their shopping done earlier.”

Shoppers also are increasingly reliant on social media: A Pew Research Center survey found that over half of shoppers who follow influencers or content creators on TikTok, Instagram and other sites, rely on those accounts when deciding to buy something. The platforms allow for a seamless browse-to-buy shopping experience, and with younger demographics spending more of their time on the apps, brands and companies are bringing their products to them.

The latest report from Adobe Analytics on holiday spending showed that Americans spent a record $5.29 billion on Thanksgiving, a 2.9 percent increase from last year, but the number is not adjusted for inflation. In its holiday forecast, the National Retail Federation said the average shopper will spend $832.84 on gifts and holiday items, which is in line with the 10-year average.

But retailers are still making moves to get people back in stores, said Shawn Grain Carter, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

“If you go into the physical store, oftentimes they have additional doorbuster sales because they’re trying to drive traffic,” she said, adding that after years of covid fears and crowd restrictions, shoppers want to be back in stores. “The pandemic has forced more consumers to realize they want human connection and contact.”

Rachel Lerman in Auburn, Wash., contributed to this report.

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