Like millions of other Americans, Zahid Khattak headed to the mall early the day after Thanksgiving. But unlike many others, he wasn't stocking up on holiday presents. That, he said, he would do later, online.
“This is just an event — an excuse to come out,” he said, as he waited for his 7-year-old daughter to get a purple butterfly painted on her cheek. “We don’t really need to buy anything.”
Instead, the family waited in a line for face-painting. They lined up for an artist who turned balloons into pink and green swords. They walked to Santa’s workshop, complete with interactive displays.
Elsewhere, there were free makeovers, spin classes, pizza samples and a selfie stop hosted by radio personality Tommy McFly in front of the Lord & Taylor.
Managers at Tysons Corner Center in Northern Virginia began planning this year’s Black Friday festivities more than a year and half ago as it became clear more shoppers were choosing to buy online. Their goal: to remind people that going to the mall can be fun, even if there’s no shopping involved.
“Long before there was Cyber Monday, there was Black Friday,” said Bob Maurer, the mall’s marketing manager. “We want to bring back that excitement and show people how wonderful it can be in a physical place.”
The number of Americans who go to stores on Black Friday has declined steadily in recent years. This year, 35 percent of consumers who plan to shop during Thanksgiving week say they will do so on Black Friday, down from 51 percent last year and 59 percent the year before, according to professional services giant PWC.
Meanwhile, online shopping is growing rapidly. By 10 a.m. on Black Friday, Americans had already spent $640 million online that day, a 18 percent increase from last year, according to Adobe Analytics. Most of those purchases — 61 percent — were made using smartphones and tablets.
As fewer people venture to stores, retailers are looking for ways to attract customers. Walmart is hosting “parties” and offering extra discounts for shoppers who pick up items in stores. Nordstrom’s newest Los Angeles store comes stocked with bartenders, manicurists and tailors, but no merchandise. At Apple, executives say the company’s newest stores — which it calls “town squares” — have outdoor plazas, boardrooms, forums and workshops, all aimed at getting people to linger.
Many mall staples, including Macy’s, Sears and JC Penney, have closed hundreds of stores this year, leaving landlords with plenty of room to get creative.
“There are all kinds of interactive displays this year — cosmetics tastings, coffee bars, massages for achy feet,” said Summer Taylor, a director at the accounting and consulting firm Deloitte & Touche. “Malls are really trying to diversify their offerings. They have to, to bring in more customers.”
The shift comes as retailers — and shoppers — treat the holiday shopping season as more of a weeks-long slog than a one-day sprint. Discounts have spread out, both in stores and online, as consumers demand lower prices and greater convenience, which means the Black Friday frenzy isn’t nearly as pronounced as it once was. That was certainly the case in the morning at Tysons Corner Center.
“We can’t believe it,” said Shadon Petty, 45, who has been going shopping on Black Friday with her sister for at least 20 years. “We walked in and were like, ‘What’s going on? Is something wrong? Did we come to the wrong place?’ ”
They knew this year was different, her sister added, as soon as they pulled into the parking lot. “This is the first year we’ve actually been able to choose where we park because there were so many empty spots,” Stephanie Graham said. “It’s like nobody cares about Black Friday anymore.”
Although many retailers were promoting sweeping discounts — 50 percent off everything at Hollister and Ann Taylor, $1 books at the American Girl store — customers seemed largely unfazed. The stores with the largest crowds — Apple and beauty company Lush, among them — lacked Black Friday specials.
Meanwhile, business appeared slow at Lacoste (where everything was 40 percent off) and Kay Jewelers (25 percent off) Friday morning. L.L. Bean was offering free paracord-making workshops, but 30 minutes in, nobody had shown up to the company’s booth.
“It feels more like a Saturday than Black Friday,” said Ruby Scribner, 25, who works at Spencers, the chain that specializes in gag gifts. “I honestly thought it would be different.”
Mae Thamer-Nall of Potomac had thought so too. She had avoided going to the mall on Black Friday her entire life, she said, because she had feared large crowds. But Friday was shaping up to be different.
“We can’t believe how few people are at this mall,” she said. “It’s actually kind of pleasant.”
There is also a growing movement to get Americans to think beyond shopping on Black Friday. REI, the outdoor goods chain, is closing its stores for the third year and encouraging employees and customers to spend the day outside.
But it’s not just retailers that are offering alternatives: State parks in Minnesota are offering free admission. In Milwaukee, 11 craft breweries are spending the day unveiling their newest beers.
The state of Washington, meanwhile, has filled its lakes with thousands of “large” trout to encourage residents to grab their fishing lines instead of their credit cards the day after Thanksgiving.
“Let’s face it: If you’re going to get up early and wait around, you might as well go fishing,” said Jason Wettstein, a spokesman for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Shopping can wait.”
Amira Tohan, 12, thinks so, too. She had arrived at the Tysons mall early Friday with a friend — but instead of shopping, she was getting her hair blow-dried at a Dysons pop-up.
“We saw the blowouts and were like, why not?,” she said. “The stores are pretty empty, so we can go shopping later.”
Eventually, she said, she planned to stop by Lululemon, Sephora and Bath & Body Works. She was hoping for discounts but said it would be fine if she went home empty-handed.
“It’s just fun to be here,” she said. “Even if you don't buy anything, the experience of going shopping gets you in the Christmas spirit.”