Black Friday: Holiday Shopping in a Pandemic

Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

Retailers have experienced a stark split in fortunes during the pandemic. The mass shutdowns this spring fueled big-name bankruptcies and thousands of store closures. And the strong like Amazon and Walmart have only gotten stronger and more profitable, driven by their online businesses and ability to supply everything people need while stuck at home, from food to electronics.

Now, all retailers are entering their most important time of the year — the holiday shopping season that has long revolved around Black Friday.

Traditionally, the day has been known for doorbuster deals and early morning in-person shopping. This year, many of those deals began as early as October and were offered online, reflecting both the challenges physical stores face in the pandemic and the shift in how consumers prefer to shop.

About 59 percent of shoppers had started their holiday shopping by early November, according to the National Retail Federation. And more of that shopping is occurring online. E-commerce sales are expected to grow by as much as 30 percent over last year’s holiday season, the trade group said.

Over all, the industry group, which is usually bullish, said holiday sales could rise between 3.6 percent and 5.2 percent, compared with last year’s 4 percent increase.

One very early signal of the growth of digital sales this year: Adobe Analytics, which scans 80 percent of online transactions across the top 100 U.S. web retailers, said consumers spent about $5.1 billion online this Thanksgiving Day, up from $4.2 billion last year.

Whatever the increase in spending this holiday season, it is remarkable on many levels that Americans, on the whole, are expected to spend more this holiday season than last.

The retail industry has evolved rapidly to meet the strong consumer demand this holiday season, transforming department stores into fulfillment centers, building new warehouses, hiring hundreds of thousands of workers mostly to fill e-commerce roles, and extending curbside pickup.

And yet, for all the upending of shopping habits this year, stores are still hoping for Black Friday crowds on Friday. Best Buy and Walmart, for example, were offering many of their deals in stores, starting at 5 a.m.

Allyson Waller contributed reporting.

Credit…Salgu Wissmath for The New York Times

At the Best Buy outside Arden Fair Mall, a Sacramento shopping hub, there were no lines wrapping around the building on a chilly Black Friday morning, but plenty of customers emerged toting bulky televisions and other electronics.

A handful of shoppers planned ahead, ordering online and waiting for curbside pickup. They parked in designated spots and checked in with Best Buy on their phones. Minutes later, an employee would exit the store to verify the customer’s identification and hand over purchases.

Like many other retailers on this Black Friday, Best Buy said it was offering curbside pickup as it limited the number of shoppers inside stores to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus. And for the new Xbox and PlayStation video game consoles — which have generated significant excitement in the gaming community and long lines at GameStop stores — Best Buy was accepting only online orders.

The social distancing rules sounded fine to Noah Hippler, 19, who was clearing space in his car’s trunk outside Best Buy to make room for the Samsung TV he was purchasing for his grandparents as a gift.

“It’s been a hard year, you know?” he said as he adjusted his purple Sacramento Kings mask.

Mr. Hippler said he chose curbside pickup to avoid crowds.

“I just wanted to keep myself safe,” he said. “I don’t want to be around other people.”

A few minutes later, Katie Torok pulled up in a gray Toyota Prius. Sitting in the car wrapped in a Christmas sweater and waiting for iPads for her family, she said she was trying curbside pickup for the first time.

“Just not wanting to be exposed,” she said.

Ms. Torok, 36, said she was surprised at the ease of the process, including the quiet drive over with scarcely any cars on the road.

“It’s normally really crazy,” she said.

Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

At Macy’s flagship store in Manhattan, Black Friday was a different scene this year.

Sure, the massive Herald Square building was lit with Christmas lights and motion screens, and the windows were decorated with vibrant colored toys, lights and images of New York City landmarks. But red stickers on the ground depicting two reindeer urged people to stay safely apart while viewing the decorations. And city workers had less to clean up after the Thanksgiving parade, since the pandemic had limited the event to the store’s immediate vicinity, with few spectators.

Even with the year’s dislocations, Moses Slone, a 32-year-old Lower East Side resident, held to a Black Friday routine of shopping with his mother, Michelle Slone, 50, who was visiting from Florida. She was up at 4 a.m., an hour before her son, and Macy’s was their first stop, just before 7.

“We didn’t buy anything, as there just wasn’t as many deals as there were last year,” Mr. Slone said as they left the store. “This year was more about tradition than actual shopping. It’s a way to get into the spirit of the holidays.”

From Macy’s, they were headed to Times Square. “We don’t have a plan today,” Mr. Slone said. “We’re just flying by the edge of our seat.”

It was also a family day for Alex George, 24, who moved to Midtown Manhattan in September after landing a job in consulting. Thursday was his birthday, and his parents came to visit from Youngstown, Ohio, where he grew up.

With a bag containing a few sweaters that Alex had just purchased, the three stood in front of a Macy’s window streaming the word “BELIEVE” in Christmas colors as they took a photo of their reflections.

“It seems like everybody inside is very grateful and appreciative that you’re in there,” said Mr. George’s stepmother, Teri Hamlin, 59, chalking up employees’ happiness to being back to work after the year’s lockdowns. “They’ve been extra accommodating.”

Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

The Centers for Disease Control’s list of higher-risk activities for spreading Covid-19 includes “going shopping in crowded stores just before, on, or after Thanksgiving.”

The C.D.C. included the note about shopping in its guidance for holiday celebrations this fall. “Shopping online rather than in person on the day after Thanksgiving or the next Monday” was listed among lower-risk activities.

The encouragement to shop online and avoid crowded stores fits with retailers’ own plans in this unusual year, as they confront fearful customers and capacity restrictions. Retailers have worked to spread out demand and manage crowds and shipments, including by offering deep discounts on many key items back in October. Most major chains were closed on Thanksgiving this year after years of being open on the holiday.

Credit…Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Early last month, two Macy’s stores, in Delaware and Colorado, went “dark,” meaning employees are primarily using the spaces as fulfillment centers where they process online orders and returns rather than a place for customers to browse and shop, Michael Corkery and Sapna Maheshwari report.

The forces propelling online shopping were set in motion long before the pandemic. But charting the decline of many brick-and-mortar stores and the simultaneous growth of e-commerce in the past seven months is like watching the industry’s evolution on fast forward. In the future, 2020 will be seen as a major inflection point for retail.

Jeff Gennette, Macy’s chief executive, said the dark stores are part of an experiment as the company responds to customers buying more online and demanding ever-faster shipping for free. But the conversion of a department store into a fulfillment center, even temporarily, reflects how retailers are succumbing to the dominance of e-commerce and scrambling to salvage increasingly irrelevant physical shopping space.

Last week, Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, reported that e-commerce sales increased 79 percent in the third quarter, while its rival Target said its e-commerce business was up 155 percent. Amazon’s sales increased 37 percent and its profit was up nearly 200 percent in the most recent quarter.

Retail executives said that staggering growth was not a fluke of the pandemic lockdowns, but the result of a permanent shift in how people shop.

Credit…Salgu Wissmath for The New York Times

Arden Fair Mall in Sacramento was decked out in its Christmas splendor on Friday morning, with a towering, sparkling tree to greet shoppers — but few were around to see it.

Some couples, families and clusters of friends holding bulging shopping bags browsed shoes and makeup. But the calm, quiet atmosphere was a stark contrast from the crowds of previous years.

A few lines formed outside stores like Victoria’s Secret and Apple, because businesses needed to limit the number of shoppers inside at any one time. But the food court was nearly deserted. Even the Santa Claus at the mall was socially distancing, waving and taking photos with children from several feet away.

Employees like April Santos, 23, said the “super dead” mall came as somewhat of a relief.

The sparse crowd “makes me feel more comfortable, just with health and safety,” said Ms. Santos, who works at the clothing store Garage. “Not really for sales, but I understand — people’s health comes first.”

Some shoppers said they had been hesitant to show up on Friday, worried about whether there would be enough room to stay apart from others. But many said they were pleasantly surprised by the relaxed atmosphere.

Tina Thomas, on a Christmas shopping trip with her daughter, said she knew as soon as she entered the parking lot that the droves of shoppers hadn’t materialized this year. In years past, she said, Arden was a “madhouse,” with cars lined up just to park.

“This is a lot better — nobody’s pushing or fighting for a parking space,” said Ms. Thomas, 45.

More shoppers started to turn up closer to lunchtime, and Mike Cogal, the manager at a locally owned clothing store, Goodstock, said his business had been getting a lot of traffic.

“It’s actually been pretty crazy in here,” said Mr. Cogal, 35, noting that Goodstock was thriving despite the pandemic. “Today, it was a little bit of a slow start, but it’s definitely picking up.”

Upstairs, though, another family business was not faring as well.

Rap music was blaring and bright sweatshirts on display at Fresh N Fitted, but the co-owner, Yaseen Ali, said few shoppers had come in.

“It is quite concerning, actually,” said Mr. Ali, 43, who said he had been expecting a long line and brought in additional staff. He let one employee leave early when the crowds did not materialize.

Like many local businesses, Fresh N Fitted, which has nine locations around the Central Valley, has been struggling since stay-at-home orders first shattered stores and limited leisure activities many months ago, Mr. Ali said. While Black Friday this year was not shaping up as the boom time for sales as it was in the past, he said he hoped a vaccine would turn things around.

“It’s just a matter of hanging in there,” he said. “As long as we can keep afloat till the help comes.”

Credit…Sabine Mirlesse for The New York Times

Black Friday has been a part of European life for years, where it has been neatly severed from Thanksgiving and thrived as a pure shopping promotion. But that doesn’t mean that this U.S. import is always welcomed. And under different levels of lockdown this year, the usual frenzy is muted.

Black Friday is often a contentious event in France, where some people see it as an unwanted onslaught of American-style consumerism.

And with the coronavirus ravaging France’s economy, the fracas has never been as loud as this year.

Faced with a nationwide revolt by angry shopkeepers forced to close during France’s second national lockdown, the government has pushed Black Friday back to Dec. 4. The delay is supposed to level the playing field for booksellers, clothing shops and “nonessential” businesses that complained that Amazon and large retailers that can still operate would swipe lucrative business from them.

On Tuesday, President Emmanuel Macron announced a sooner-than-expected easing of restrictions that will allow stores to reopen on Saturday, giving shopkeepers time to prepare for the delayed Black Friday sales. Shoppers, however, will have to wait to snap up discounts.

While Black Friday has thrived in many countries, France was slower than others to join the trend. Politicians have discouraged shoppers from taking part, warning of “a frenzy of consumption” in which people are encouraged to buy products they don’t need.

The arguments extend to Amazon. Its detractors say the giant American retailer is getting the French hooked on an ever-expanding consumption of goods. Still, Amazon’s continuing influence in France is such that other big retailers held back from agreeing to postpone their Black Friday sales until Amazon did.

Despite the blowup, Black Friday will be an essential sales tool. French retailers raked in an estimated 6 billion euros in revenue around Black Friday last year. Retail sales are still around 10 percent below their 2019 levels, according to the German bank Allianz.

In Germany, where the English term Black Friday entered mass consciousness less than a decade ago, many retailers are using the name to advertise sales, even if the discounts themselves are much less impressive than they are in the United States.

“Get yourself the best deals with up to 50 percent off, in nearly all stores,” the tagline of the gleaming Mall of Berlin reads. Germany has a looser lockdown than other nearby countries: Shops are open, with masks required. Restrictions on the number of shoppers allowed inside were announced Wednesday, to ensure social distancing.

Germany has a thanksgiving celebration that is held earlier in the year, and the Christmas season tends to start in December with the traditional Advent celebrations or when the local outdoor Christmas markets open, so the fourth Friday of November has little significance.

That didn’t prevent big retailers, especially those dealing in electronics, from using Black Friday as a sales pitch, often by putting a small selection of goods on sale for an entire week in the hopes of attracting shoppers.

According to a recent study of 979 online shoppers by the market research firm Statista, 95 percent of Germans knew about Black Friday and 34 percent were planning to make it a shopping day.

Black Friday arrived while England was in the final week of a monthlong lockdown that has shuttered nonessential stores to customers. And so the big sale day that tends to kick off a shopping frenzy until Christmas, much as it does in the United States, moved mostly online.

The pandemic has knocked a hole in the British economy like nothing seen in 300 years. But the propensity for shopping hasn’t waned among the British people. Last month, official data showed retail sales were nearly 7 percent higher than in February, before the virus outbreak took hold.

The windfall hasn’t fallen evenly. Online shopping in Britain has risen 45 percent since the start of the pandemic. Stuck at home, people have spent far more on household goods than they have on clothes.

While many stores are closed to customers, their managers have found a way around this, offering click-and-collect services or adding a delivery option. So while foot traffic in retail sites has been very low — about 60 percent lower than this time last year — the streets aren’t as empty as during the first lockdown last spring.

Black Friday sales have been popular in Britain for years, but the chaos surrounding them has died down since 2014, the year fights broke out in Manchester, Dundee, Cardiff and other cities over cut-price televisions, and the police were called to restore order.

This year, several large retailers, including Marks & Spencer and Next, chose to sit out the sales, the BBC reported, focused on offering “great value” all season.

Credit…Charlotte Kesl for The New York Times

The start of the holiday shopping season brings renewed concerns about the safety of retail workers amid rising coronavirus cases around the country.

But these worries, for the most part, have not yet resulted in significant pay raises for the workers to compensate them for the increased risks. Companies like Amazon, Walmart and Kroger have all ended pay raises or bonuses that they gave out in earlier months of the pandemic and have not signaled plans to restore them.

“There has not been a day that I and my co-workers do not worry about our health and safety,” Janet Wainwright, a Kroger worker in Yorktown, Va., said during a conference call organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers union on Monday.

This week, labor unions and think tanks have been pressuring retailers to increase their pay by highlighting the companies’ huge profits during the pandemic and how relatively little of that windfall they have been sharing with their employees.

A report by the Brookings Institution found that the top 10 retail companies have generated, on average, $16.9 billion in additional profit this year compared with last year, a 39 percent increase. Workers at these companies, however, have only seen average wages increase by $1.11 per hour during the pandemic.

On Wednesday, the U.F.C.W. reached an agreement with ShopRite that will allow 50,000 workers to receive hazard pay equal to $1 an hour for every hour they worked between July 26 and Aug. 22. The workers will receive this retroactive pay in a lump sum and the company said it would discuss future hazard pay with the union if state or local government begin ordering “nonessential” retailers shut down again, while ShopRite employees must still show up for work.

Retailers are also beginning to face lawsuits from workers and their families who said the companies did not do enough to protect them from the virus. The family of an employee of Publix, in Florida, who died from the virus, recently sued the grocery chain. They claim that the company would not let its employees wear masks in late March even as some health experts began recommending face coverings, according to The Tampa Bay Times.

Credit…Eddie Hausner/The New York Times

This year, the term “Black Friday” may seem particularly fitting, with the pandemic casting a pall over a holiday usually known for its joyous, unselfconscious commercial excess. But how did the day get such a gloomy name in the first place?

Historians say it originated in Philadelphia in the 1960s, when throngs of shoppers and tourists would descend on the city on the day between Thanksgiving and the Army-Navy football game. The Philadelphia police took to calling the day Black Friday because officers had to work long hours and deal with bad traffic, bad weather and other crowd-related miseries.

At first, local retailers didn’t like the name. The word “black” in front of a day of the week recalled days like Black Tuesday, the sell-off the day before the stock market crash of 1929; or Black Monday, the day of an even bigger crash in 1987. Retailers tried to rebrand the holiday “Big Friday.” But when that didn’t catch on, they reclaimed the name Black Friday, saying that the holiday was when stores went from the red to the black.

“Black Friday means getting in the black — that’s when you’re making a profit,” said Shawn Grain Carter, a professor of management at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “It was a key indicator for how you would do for your fourth-quarter results. So everybody monitored Black Friday. Some people say it’s a pejorative term, but it’s never a bad thing to make money.”

Starting in the 1980s, Black Friday expanded beyond Philadelphia, with major retailers across the United States using the holiday to unveil their hottest new products and to offer steep discounts for customers willing to line up at the crack of dawn. In the early 2000s, retailers started expanding the shopping holiday into a multiday event, adding Cyber Monday for online shopping, and eventually Small Business Saturday to encourage people to patronize local businesses.

Wirecutter’s journalists spent months testing and researching gear, gadgets, home goods and more to make their final picks on the best buying options across hundreds of categories. Then, our Wirecutter Deals editors scan the internet to find those at the most favorable prices from trusted sources — tracking price changes and store policies year round, not just for big retail events like Black Friday.

This research allowed the Wirecutter team to poke holes in marketing tricks, like when a product is on perma-sale, meaning that you can, say, buy it for $30 off throughout the year, so the hyped-up Black Friday price is not a deal. We’ve also seen companies jack up the “before” price on the eve of a big sale to make a discount appear better than it is.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic caused supply-chain chaos, stock shortages and shipping delays. Amazon moved its annual Prime Day sale from July to mid-October, which effectively kicked off an avalanche of holiday sales.

As of Black Friday, the Wirecutter staff has looked at nearly 33,000 deals, but only about 300 passed its rigorous standards.