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Virus keeps Black Friday crowds sparse, shoppers shift online

Fewer shoppers than last year visited Ellenton Premium

Fewer shoppers than last year visited Ellenton Premium Outlet in Ellenton, Fla.  Credit: AP/Chris O'Meara

A spike in COVID-19 cases kept a lid on in-person Black Friday shopping in the latest challenge for the nation's beleaguered retailers.

The surge in coronavirus cases is threatening the economy's fitful recovery from the sudden plunge in the spring and crowds at stores were dramatically diminished as shoppers buy more online.

"Black Friday is still critical," said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. "It's still vital to get their consumers spending and get consumers into the holiday mood."

Only a trickle of shoppers showed up at Macy’s Herald Square in New York, which offered 50% off handbags and 60% off women’s and men’s coats.

There was no one in line at the service area where customers pick up their online orders. The scene looked similarly empty at the nearby Manhattan Mall.

Many retailers closed their doors on Thanksgiving Day but beefed up their safety protocols to reassure wary customers about coming in on Black Friday.

A shift to online spending is helping to offset sparse crowds on what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year.

At the Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, New Jersey, parking spots were easy to find shortly after the mall opened.

Several hundred shoppers lined up ahead of opening at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, which normally attracts several thousand on Black Friday.

The smaller crowds were planned, said Jill Renslow, Mall of America’s senior vice president of business development. The mall spread out the Black Friday deals over eight days, and many retail tenants pivoted more to online and curbside pickup.

"It feels good, and it’s the right thing to do to keep everybody safe," Renslow said "Everyone is shopping a little differently, but that’s OK."

There are also fewer deals to be had this year. Nonessential retailers were forced to halt production at the onset of the pandemic, leading to lower inventory. As a result, holiday promotions are tracking below last year's levels for clothing, consumer electronics, power and hand tools and home goods, according to Numerator, a market research firm.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled shopping in crowded stores during the holidays a "higher risk" activity. Instead, the health agency recommends shopping online, visiting outdoor markets or using curbside pickup.

And Black Friday was the last thing on the minds of some hurt the most by the pandemic. At a popular shopping area in St. Petersburg, Florida, several storefronts were empty, and the only line was at a plasma donation center.

Leonard Chester, 58, said he hoped to get at least $55 for the donation, saying that he needed to eat. When reminded that it was Black Friday, he let out a laugh and pointed to the line around him.

"This says that people are hurting. The economy’s bad," said Chester, who was laid off from his job as a bouncer at a strip club two months ago.

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