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Count Black Friday among the traditions upended this year by COVID-19.
In past years, the holiday shopping season kickoff was heralded by family and friends gathering to grab doorbusters in the cold. But this holiday season, Americans are generally shying away from shopping in groups and hunkering down online amid the global pandemic.
More stores stayed closed on Thanksgiving than in recent years and opened early Friday. Old Navy had the earliest opening time with some stores opening at midnight local time.
At 5 a.m., the nation’s largest retailers opened their doors, including Walmart, Best Buy, Kohl’s, Macy’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods. More stores opened at 6 a.m. and Target and GameStop opened at 7 a.m. (See the full list of Black Friday store hours here.)
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While stores across the country had smaller lines of shoppers waiting for stores to open, there were several reports of shoppers who camped out at GameStop stores trying to score the new Sony PlayStation 5 and Microsoft Xbox Series X, two in-demand gaming consoles that are currently out of stock at most stores and online.
Black Friday and the weekend after Thanksgiving “are still important, but clearly this year they’re not going to have as significant an impact on the holiday season as they have in the past,” says Tom McGee, president and CEO of the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC). “That said a lot of people will still shop this weekend.”
With many shoppers deciding to stay home, online spending reached a record-shattering $5.1 billion on Thanksgiving Day, 21.5% more than in 2019, according to Adobe Analytics.
Online clicking reached its peak at 9 PM ET, likely after the Thanksgiving dishes were put away, according to e-commerce platform Shopify. Shoppers spent $90.40 on average, and clothing and accessories were the most common items filling their baskets.
Meanwhile, an ICSC survey found that 72% intend to shop on Black Friday, similar to last year’s holiday season. On Cyber Monday, 73% expect to make purchases.
Black Friday was already evolving, growing beyond being a one-day event. But this year, retailers unveiled deals earlier than ever to entice shoppers and ease worries about bargain hunters crowding stores in the middle of a global health crisis.
“This Thanksgiving period, shoppers are interested in two things, getting a good deal on items and feeling safe,” said Rod Sides, U.S. retail, wholesale and distribution leader for consultancy Deloitte in a statement. “And this is driving significant changes in how they approach the season.”
This will be the first Black Friday that more shoppers scoop up deals online than at an actual store, Deloitte says, with 61% making purchases with the click of a button as compared to 54% who venture out.
Among those surveyed, 61% say they either don’t intend to visit stores with friends and relatives this holiday weekend or haven’t made a final decision, as compared to 48% who said the same last year.
And nearly 6 in 10 shoppers say they are nervous about browsing in a store this holiday season because of the coronavirus, Deloitte says.
Walmart U.S. chief merchandising offer Scott McCall said in a blog post that the retailer reinvented its Black Friday experience this year “by holding events over multiple days, moving the most sought-after items to online only and creating a socially-distanced in-store experience.”
Best selling items included wireless headphones, gaming consoles and the Keurig K-Compact, McCall said.
As the coronavirus surges in various parts of the country, shoppers say they are focused on safety first. Having COVID-19 safety protocols in place mattered most to 36% of those surveyed when picking what stores to visit this weekend, according to the ICSC.
Online sales are expected to continue to soar as more shoppers hunker down at home. Shoppers are expected to spend $10 billion online on Black Friday, 39% more than that day last year, according to Adobe Analytics. And Cyber Monday will keep its top spot as the busiest online shopping day, with shoppers expected to spend $12.7 billion, 35% more than in 2019.
Howard Dvorkin, chairman of Debt.com, said he’s been telling people to prepare for desperation.
“Retailers have barely survived this pandemic, so their holiday marketing will be urgent – and in some cases, exaggerated,” Dvorkin said. “More than ever, you need to be careful. Even in the best of times, you should be wary of too-good-to-be-true offers. This year? Be downright skeptical. When in doubt, don’t spend a dime.”
Shopping as a celebration is muted due to concerns about the pandemic, said Tom Campbell, chief technologist for Video & Audio Center stores in Los Angeles. “We are not expecting lines of people,” he said.
Instead, their stores will likely have a steady stream of shoppers. “In-store and mall retail has changed maybe forever. Recreational shoppers have really declined, however, essential shopping is up,” Campbell said.
That’s because shoppers for home technology want to see the products in person before purchasing – as opposed to buying online – whether it’s computers or displays for home office or bigger TVs and sound systems for home entertainment, Campbell said. “They go to the store to validate what they want to purchase.”
Shoppers camped out for PS5, Xbox
While Target and Walmart are selling the newest consoles, which went on sale earlier this month, exclusively online this year, GameStop had said most of its stores would have at least two PlayStation 5 and some Xbox Series X.
James Mitchell camped out in a pop-up camping tent on the sidewalk in front of GameStop in Fort Gratiot, Michigan. He told the Port Huron Times Herald, part of the USA TODAY Network, that it wasn’t his first year camping out for Black Friday deals but it was the first year he brought a tent.
“I got smarter this year,” he said.
Mitchell was among a small group of excited gamers that had been camped out for several days waiting to get their hands on the new Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5, both of which were released earlier this month. While the store didn’t open until 7 a.m. Friday, most of the group had been waiting outside since Wednesday night.
At five Wilmington, North Carolina, GameStop stores, the lines of people weren’t just long, they were also dedicated.
When the video game retailer’s Sigmon Road location opened its doors at 7 a.m. on Friday, Tayah Lowery had been outside for 36 hours waiting patiently with a portable phone charger and a reclining chair leaned up against the building.
Late in the day on Thanksgiving, she said a longing for her bed settled in. But with the end in sight around 3 a.m., she pushed through it and was cool and collected in the final hours.
“We’re in the home stretch now and this is the best way to get the PS5,” she told the Wilmington StarNews, part of the USA TODAY Network, noting it is almost impossible to get online because of demand. “Maybe four hours ago, I was wishing I was in bed. But I’m in this now.”
There’s an undeniable irony to techno-savvy gamers going old school to get their hands on the latest systems, unfolding a chair and staking their place in line – a hallmark of Black Friday shopping.
“I have never done this before,” Lowery said. “I think it has been a really cool experience and I will probably never do it again.”
Contributing: Mike Snider, USA TODAY; Laura Fitzgerald and Brian Wells, Port Huron Times Herald; Hunter Ingram, Wilmington StarNews
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black Friday 2020 live coverage: Smaller crowds shop in-store sales