Black Friday shoppers flocked to Philadelphia-area stores before dawn, but with pandemic caution in mind
"We thought, 'We will never go back to stores. But retail has come back in a torrent," at least in the suburbs, says Steve Gartner. "The consumer has decided to spend again."
Dawn Boyle of Ridley, and her sister, Chrissy Maquire, were giddy Friday morning as they perused Boscov’s in the Granite Run Mall sporting holiday headbands — one featuring golden antlers and the other a springy Christmas tree.
“It’s such a good feeling to be back,” said Dawn, 48, of their annual shopping tradition.
Some braved early Black Friday crowds despite misgivings over spreading the coronavirus. “I’m really tired of the masks, but we got used to it,” said Rochelle Green, 54, of Drexel Hill. She saved $2,400 as part of a Christmas club account and is using a chunk of it on her grandkids, along with a quesadilla maker she bought at Kohl’s in Media, Delaware County. She said the predawn start this year wasn’t quite the same as waiting in midnight lines before the pandemic.
“We’re pretty cautious” about masking and not getting too close to other shoppers, said Ammal Saleh, 16, of South Philly at the Old Navy off Columbus Boulevard, shopping cheerfully with her mom and little brother. Nearby, Driss Benzieann, also from South Philly, said this year’s higher prices make the start of shopping season seem less festive.
Crowds of shoppers were back at area malls and shopping centers on Black Friday, as many stores opened before dawn — reviving a phenomenon some retail experts had feared wouldn’t recover from last year’s pandemic shutdowns and Americans’ increased reliance on online shopping and home delivery.
It wasn’t quite business as usual: In this second holiday season of COVID-19, store staff remained masked, even if many shoppers charging through high-end malls like King of Prussia went maskless. And a very few popular shops, like Aerie at the King of Prussia Mall, admitted customers only in batches so they wouldn’t crowd beyond health guidelines.
“Foot traffic and sales are both doing better than 2019,” before the pandemic, said Tim Matthews, manager of the Boscov’s on Concord Pike, which attracts shoppers from several states because it is just inside Delaware, which levies no retail sales taxes. “Loungewear is still doing well,” as it has since so many offices closed last year, “but people are also having parties again, and we weren’t expecting that. So we’ve moved all our social dresses up front.”
A few local small-business owners said last year’s pandemic closings created unexpected opportunities. As some national chain stores departed, retail spaces opened at reasonable rates.
Sherrima Sharif, a West Philadelphia native who moved to King of Prussia as a youngster, owns and operates the Ummah Shop at the King of Prussia Mall, which sells Muslim fashions and other goods.
”This was at first meant to be a [short-term] store for Ramadan and Eid,” the Muslim holy days, and the celebrations that follow fasting, she said.
But sales were so strong that Ummah remains in business, eight months later. “So many people wanted us to stay,” she said. ”This wasn’t available to us, pre-pandemic.”
She’s been busy enough this year to leave her full-time job as a business accountant and become a full-time entrepreneur, after years of setting up temporary shops at community events and pop-up markets.
This was also the first year at King of Prussia for Don Shump, selling honey and other artisanal products from Philadelphia Bee Co. He’s expanded from his original location at the Christmas Village near Philadelphia City Hall. “It’s started a little slow, but it’s picking up,” he said.
At department stores like Boscov’s, staff masks and special cleaning are still the rule, but the areas set up to support special pandemic pickups of home goods have been dismantled, said president Jim Boscov: “As the world opened up, we went back to our regular format.”
Ruby Luceroruano and her twin sister, Shirley, both 13, enjoyed their first Black Friday shopping at Boscov’s in the Granite Run Mall. “Now that everyone’s vaccinated and everyone’s doing what they can to protect themselves we can like have freedom shopping around and like, we can have everyone together,” Ruby said.
The Reading-based chain, with 49 stores including Plymouth Meeting, Exton, and other Philadelphia-area locations selling $1 billion this year, is small enough to avoid the shipping shortages that have plagued larger rivals, Boscov added. Champion sportswear, part of Friday’s “doorbuster” sales, was a big seller.
“Our size played to our advantage,” Boscov said. “When Walmart needs a shipload, we need two containers’ worth. We are small enough to develop very close relationships with our vendors, and they have really provided for us. I’m confident we are going to have plenty of inventory through December.”
The Great Resignation was palpable. Neighboring storekeepers in King of Prussia complained that the mall’s two Starbucks had closed amid a worker shortage. Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters and its sister Anthropologie stores were advertising retail discounts for shoppers who join the holiday season staff.
Stores also managed inventories more closely, said veteran Philadelphia-area retail broker Steve Gartner, executive vice president at CBRE. “Go to Target, go to Macy’s … you won’t find the stacks of sweaters up to the rafters. They have gotten very agile at managing inventory,” he said.
Customers took notice. At Walmart in South Philly, William Montour, 55, said he was surprised that there was so much inventory still in the store on Columbus Boulevard around 9:30 a.m. The South Philly man was on the hunt for gifts for his wife and daughter and for a few tools for the house. Last year, he said, not only were there long lines, but all the shelves were bare.
“We thought we would never go back to stores,” after the shock of the pandemic shutdowns and the shift to online sales and home delivery, said Gartner. “But I’ve been wrong: Retail has come back in a torrent.”
Even the vast King of Prussia Mall center, the largest of the 100 malls run by national operator Simon Property Group and a magnet for area shoppers, has run at least slightly behind pre-pandemic 2019 numbers in every month so far this year, except May, according to Placer.ai, which tracks store visits. Mall managers have said sales are up; visitors who made it in bought more.
The trend is positive: Store visits were running an average 20% a month below 2019 levels in January through April, but then averaged a little less than 4% a month below those pre-pandemic 2019 levels, from June through October.
The King of Prussia Mall is showing a “positive recovery trend,” said Ethan Chernofsky, vice president for marketing at Placer.ai. He expects big malls with popular stores may show “strong performance” this Christmas shopping season.
It was even Black Friday at Amazon. “It’s the first day of what we call ‘peak,’ ” which lasts until Christmas, said Sean McHugh, indoor operations manager at the three-month-old, 300-worker Amazon delivery station on Ridge Avenue just north of Conshohocken.
That means 24-hour operations, with the delivery vans setting off for neighborhood streets like fighter jets, said his colleague, Traci Imel, who manages on-the-road operations at the same site. “We were doing 60,000 boxes a day, but that’s going up now,” she added. By Christmas she expects to top 100,000, daily.
“The consumer has decided to spend again,” said Gartner, the retail broker. “It’s really cool.”