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.
Brad Lawson of Norwalk, Iowa was one of the shoppers on the hunt for an Xbox and he headed to a Target in Des Moines after encountering a long line at GameStop.
Waiting outside the store 10 minutes before it opened at 7 a.m., Lawson told the Des Moines Register, part of the USA TODAY Network, that he figured he'd have better luck getting the console in person rather than trying to buy it online.
"You pretty much have to be at your computer all day long and just keep constantly checking things because it’s really random,'' said Lawson, 31, who runs a consulting firm. "I thought I’d have a better shot just showing up because I didn’t think a lot of people would be out because of COVID.”
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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 p.m. 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 the best-selling items during the retailer's reinvented Black Friday experience included wireless headphones, gaming consoles and the Keurig K-Compact. Walmart held three "Black Friday for Days" sales that kicked off online and had many online-only items.
Kohl's said in a Black Friday update Friday that electronics, kitchen electrics and smart home were among the most popular categories along with cookware, utility bedding, active and beauty.
Kohl's, which added curbside pickup during the pandemic, also said it saw a "significant increase in customers choosing to pick up online orders at their local Kohl’s store over last year, with more than 50% of all Store Pick Up orders completed by customers using our contactless Drive Up service."
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.
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.
Jessalyn Elder, 18, a student at the University of Iowa picked up an $18 air fryer from Menard's then headed to the Southridge Target in Des Moines. There she intended to get another practical purchase – a pajama set for herself and a significant other.
“I usually go with a group of friends, but obviously a lot of us are social distancing right now, so it changes it a little bit,'' she said adding that while she didn't camp out all night like years past, she still wanted to shop in person. "It’s more for the experience. Like, I’m home from college right now, it’s nice to be back in town, seeing familiar faces.”
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.
Not all shoppers realized they'd strike out at Target and lined up.
Brad Lawson's quest for an Xbox appeared to end in defeat. He'd left GameStop for Target, determined to get the device for a TV that he said was "essentially made for that console.''
But as Target flung open its doors, a store employee delivered some disappointing news – PS5s and Xboxes were for sale online only. Without a word, Lawson abandoned his spot.
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; Katie Akin, Des Moines Register
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black Friday 2020 live coverage: Smaller crowds shop in-store sales