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Black Friday crowds are thinner but still laser-focused in the Philly region amid the pandemic

More U.S. consumers have declined to wake up before the sun, wait in the cold, and push through crowds to capitalize on deep discounts. But the committed still do.

Customers make their way to the mall during black Friday sales at the King of Prussia Mall, In King of Prussia, Pa. Friday, November 27, 2020.
Customers make their way to the mall during black Friday sales at the King of Prussia Mall, In King of Prussia, Pa. Friday, November 27, 2020.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

When Kathleen Zogby rose from her seat inside the King of Prussia Mall a few minutes past 6 a.m., the light caught the glittery wording on her shirt: Black Friday Queen.

Her plan was straightforward and undeterred by a global pandemic: Start Black Friday as early as possible with coffee and breakfast from Starbucks, then trek through the 2.9 million-square-foot mall with her adult granddaughters to shop for deals. No need to worry if they didn’t get to all the stores they wanted by the end of the day — they’d be back on Saturday and Sunday, too, before they went home.

“It’s our bonding time and we didn’t want to give that up,” said Zogby, 75, of Harrisburg, who came equipped with face shields, single-use gloves, and hand sanitizer, and was accompanied by granddaughters Gillian Carney, 28, and Samantha Tinglof, 35.

“This is way less,” said Carney, of Baltimore, referring to the crowd. “Normally, the line is sort of wrapped outside the door.”

Black Friday, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year, was subdued this year as public health officials advised people to stay at home as much as possible and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorized holiday shopping in crowded stores as a “higher risk” activity.

While in-person sales faltered, online shopping has continued to rise this holiday season as more people stayed home, retail analysts said. In the last several years, more consumers have declined to wake up before the sun, wait in the cold, and push through crowds to capitalize on deep discounts.

About 75% of people said they would do some of their holiday shopping online this year compared to 65% last year, according to a survey of 1,500 people from the global consulting firm Accenture. An estimated 43% of the respondents said they would do all their shopping online. And, in a hopeful sign for Main Street retailers, the firm noted in another report that consumers were buying more goods from local stores.

The National Retail Federation predicted there would be a holiday sales spike of as much as 5.2%, or $766.7 billion, compared to last year. Online shopping was projected to grow between 20% and 30%, or $202.5 billion to $218.4 billion, a substantial rise from $168.7 billion last year.

This year, as a flood of retailers introduced online holiday deals earlier than usual, some consumers prematurely started their holiday shopping and gave companies the momentum to narrow any losses sustained at the beginning of the pandemic.

On Thanksgiving, online shopping peaked in the U.S., with consumers spending $5.1 billion, a year-over-year increase of 21.5% compared to 2019, according to Adobe Analytics, which studied 1 trillion hits to various U.S. retail websites to observe consumer trends. Thanksgiving online sales last year clocked in at $4.2 billion.

This year, according to Adobe Analytics, nearly half of people who shopped online on Thanksgiving did so with their smartphones, underlining the devices’ ever-growing importance.

“Heavy discounts and aggressive promotions starting in early November succeeded at getting consumers to open their wallets earlier,” said Taylor Schreiner, director of Adobe Digital Insights.

Because of the early holiday advertising, 41% of about 1,000 people surveyed said they started buying earlier than normal, and more than half felt like Black Friday would “feel less special” because of it. Still, 56% said they suspected the most lucrative bargains would present themselves on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

The normal scrum of holiday shoppers in King of Prussia had thinned noticeably Friday, with fewer customers in apparel stores except for such Black Friday heavy-hitters as Lululemon, Aerie, and American Eagle Outfitters. They all drew crowds of mostly younger female customers.

They also had some catching up to do. Recent earnings reports showed net revenue for Lululemon, the sporty-chic apparel chain, was $902.9 million by the end of its second quarter in early August, a 2% increase from last year.

American Eagle Outfitters, owner of the streetwear apparel retailer American Eagle and the underwear and loungewear retailer Aerie, reported net revenue of $1.07 billion by the end of October, a $35 million drop from close to the same time last year.

Revenue for American Eagle fell by 11%, according to the company’s third-quarter results, but revenue for Aerie — long popular among girls and women for including a more diverse range of models and promoting self-love — rose 34%, placing the company in a comfortable position for the holiday season.

“After all they’ve been through, we think there’s going to be a psychological factor that they owe it to themselves and their families to have a better-than-normal holiday,” said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation, when the group released its sales predictions for the holiday season on Nov. 23. “There are risks to the economy if the virus continues to spread, but as long as consumers remain confident and upbeat, they will spend for the holiday season.”

Legos, Barbie dolls, children’s scooters, video games, televisions, laptops, and Apple Watches are expected to be some of the most popular items consumers buy this holiday season, Adobe Analytics predicted. It said chess game sales also increased by 300% in tune with the popularity of Netflix’s recently released show, The Queen’s Gambit.

One of the biggest decisions for customers is between Microsoft’s Xbox series and Sony’s PlayStation 5, both released this month. In a shift from earlier incarnations, the Xbox presents lots of games at an affordable price, from Game Pass to big name franchises like Halo and Gears of War.

PlayStation 5 enables players to sense a range of vibrations and sensations and features its own impressive lineup, including Spider-Man: Miles Morales and a remake of Demon’s Souls. The game console, which generally sells for $400 to $500, is now being bought and resold for more than $1,000.

In New Jersey, Raeqwan Lassiter, 24, said he wanted to try to buy the PlayStation 5 if he could — he was constantly refreshing GameStop’s website to snag it — but even if it wasn’t possible this time, he intended to make this holiday season a good one.

“I got my kids random dolls; I bought some things for a few little cousins, also,” said Lassiter, of Northeast Philadelphia, who took a shopping break around 7:30 a.m. after arriving at the Cherry Hill Mall at 6 a.m. At his feet, a big blue bag from the Disney store bulged with toys. Next, he planned to buy gifts for his mother and sister, and perhaps look for something for himself.

He hadn’t gone Black Friday shopping last year, and this year, despite the pandemic — or perhaps because of it — he paid $5 to cross the bridge from Pennsylvania to buy some gifts he could lavish on his family in a few weeks.

“When I grew up, my aunts used to always go, and I just loved to go with them,” he said. “And I feel like this is just part of the holiday spirit.”