Pandemic fears, online deals thin US Black Friday crowds

(Eduardo Munoz, Reuters)

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NEW YORK (Reuters) — Masked shoppers turned up in smaller numbers at major U.S. retailers including Macy's, Walmart and Best Buy on Black Friday as early online deals and worry about the spike in COVID-19 cases dulled enthusiasm for trips to the mall.

Retailers overhauled the traditionally busy shopping day that comes the day after Thanksgiving. Walmart opened stores at 5 a.m. on Friday, directing shoppers to turn right upon entering and proceed along main aisles to shop deals before paying at registers surrounded by plastic barriers.

Best Buy opened at 5 a.m, employing workers in can't miss orange vests to serve as traffic cops. Others offered temperature checks and "grab-and-go" merchandise, including toys, bikes and kitchen appliances to discourage lingering in store aisles.

Bill Park, a partner at Deloitte & Touche LP, estimated traffic at the King of Prussia mall outside of Philadelphia was down about 20-30% compared to last year.

"I'm surprised at the traffic. It's down a little bit but heavier than I thought," he said but noted shoppers were not loaded down with packages.

Elsewhere, shoppers with empty carts lined up a socially-distant 6 feet apart before the Walmart in LaGrange, Kentucky opened, but crowds appeared down overall. Stores selling popular computer game consoles had some of the longest lines as die-hard gamers tried to land Sony Corp's PlayStation 5.

In Utah, shopper Oscar Pena arrived outside a GameStop location in Sandy just after 6 p.m. on Wednesday but wasn't the first in line, KSL TV reported. He brought a tent, sleeping bag and blanket to keep warm until the store opened at 7 a.m. Friday, in hopes of getting a PS5.

"I was informed that they were only going to have two per every location, so I just had to get here as soon as I could," he said.

Shoppers brave the cold waiting outside a GameStop location in Sandy, Utah, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020.
Shoppers brave the cold waiting outside a GameStop location in Sandy, Utah, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. (Photo: KSL TV)

In New York's Bronx borough, brothers-in-law Gabriel Rojas, 24 and Juan Cabrera, 24 were waiting in line at GameStop since 2 a.m. on Friday, hopeful to snatch up a PS5. They were unsuccessful as there were some 20 people ahead of them and the retailer only had two left in stock, they said.

"We're bummed" said Rojas. "But that's OK."

Some had better luck.

Roger Mustafa, 37, walked out of a Manhattan GameStop with a PS5 in a plastic bag and a huge smile on his face. It cost him $544 and a lot of sleep.

"I've been waiting outside of GameStop for two days," said Bronx resident Mustafa. "Now I'm going to go home and get some sleep."

At Macy's New York flagship, Asuncion Peralta, 77, said she was not afraid to shop because she had COVID-19 antibodies.

"I've been waiting for this day for a long time to buy towels and sheets, everything else that I need," said Peralta. "These prices are not Black Friday prices. I came here two days ago and the deals were better."

Deals online

During this pandemic-ridden year, major retailers from Target to Kohl's and Walmart rolled out online winter holiday promotions in October to capture any holiday-related spending as early as possible.

Upscale department store operator Nordstrom, which has seen its sales tumble in the pandemic, offered customers a $15 gift card if they picked up packages curbside at their stores.

Overall, the National Retail Federation forecasts U.S. holiday retail sales will increase between 3.6% and 5.2% over 2019, for a total of $755.3 billion to $766.7 billion. That compares with an average annual increase of 2.5% over the past five years.

On Nov. 19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deemed "going shopping in crowded stores just before, on, or after Thanksgiving" as a high-risk activity.

Target employee Seth Schaffer, 22, from Lufkin, Texas, said shoppers in his store appeared less concerned about taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"Just know if I get COVID, it's from work," he said. "Deep east Texas isn't the type of place where you'll see everyone respecting mask policies or avoiding close contact."

More than half of U.S. shoppers expect to shop online on Black Friday, despite 75% of consumers taking advantage of seasonal sales, which started earlier this year, an Adobe Analytics survey predicts.

Fran Boyd shops at the Silver Room store during Black Friday, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., November 27, 2020. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski
Fran Boyd shops at the Silver Room store during Black Friday, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., November 27, 2020. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski

However, 55% of consumers reported that sales on the Black Friday weekend feel less special due to promotions in the run up to the event, according to Adobe.

Adobe expects Thanksgiving Day to come in below $6 billion in total sales, with Black Friday set to cross $10 billion in sales.

Melissa Bloss, who works at a bank in Rapid City, South Dakota. said she plans to do all her shopping online this year.

"Most companies have been having sales throughout the month. I really don't have a need to rush out when I can get the same deal a week later," she said.


(Reporting by Melissa Fares in New York; Additional reporting by Richa Naidu in Chicago, James Davey in London and Aishwarya Venugopal in Bengaluru; Editing by Vanessa O'Connell, Louise Heavens and Nick Zieminski)

Contributing: Andrew Adams, KSL TV

© Copyright Thomson Reuters 2020


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