Retailers are banking on a big return to stores and malls over the signature holiday shopping weekend, but supply chain tangles may send more of those dollars online

People visit Macy’s Herald Square in New York City in the early morning of Black Friday 2020. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Antonio Rojas has spent weeks trying to cross items off his Christmas shopping list — a gaming laptop, Xbox controllers, Blu-Rays — only to run into a series of dead ends. Stores are sold out, websites are on back order and prices are stubbornly high.

Black Friday will be his last attempt, he said. But even then he’s not sure whether to shop in-store or online.

“I’m asking a lot of questions, wondering if things will be back in stock or if it’s even worth it to keep trying,” said Rojas, 31, a warehouse worker in Passaic, N.J. “Where will I have more luck? I usually go to stores on Black Friday but we’re still in a pandemic — do I trust people? Will they be wearing masks?”

After more than a year and half of pandemic-related uncertainties, Black Friday kicks off with big questions for retailers and shoppers. Supply chains are tangled, prices are rising and shipping delays are rampant. Consumers are left to wonder whether they’ll find what they need. Meanwhile, store and mall operators don’t know how many shoppers will show up, or whether they’ll mostly buy online as they did last year.

Analysts say the vagaries stem, in part, from the elasticity of the holiday shopping season, which traditionally begins the day after Thanksgiving but in practice starts earlier each year. Walmart, Target, Amazon and Best Buy all began rolling out holiday discounts in October. And nearly two-thirds of Americans have already begun their holiday shopping, according to the National Retail Federation, fueling last month’s surge in retail sales. Now the industry is waiting to see whether that momentum will extend into the final stretch of the year — and Black Friday is the ultimate test.

“There will be empty shelves, there will be fewer discounts, but negative headlines notwithstanding, this is also going to be an epic holiday season for retailers,” said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. “We’ve been in lockdown for a year and half, and absent some really unseemly uptick in covid, people are going to want to shop. But the world shut down for the better part of 2020 and it’s not reopening at the stroke of a light switch.”

At Tysons Corner Center in Northern Virginia, groups of shoppers began arriving at 6 a.m., eager to make up for lost time. Many said covid-related fears had kept them home last year. But this year they were ready to shop.

Many stores, though, were limiting the number of people allowed inside, leading to lines that snaked through the mall. By 8:30 a.m., nearly 40 people were waiting to get into Lululemon. There were a dozen mothers and daughters in front of the American Girl Store. And the line outside Blessed, a sneaker shop, was about 20 deep.

But compared with pre-pandemic Black Fridays, it seemed downright relaxed, said Ron Richardson of Southeast D.C., who had come in search of Yeezy sneakers and an Apple Watch for his wife.

“It’s perfect out here today — not too crowded because there’s a lot of scared people who stayed home,” he said, adding that he shopped online last year “because there were so many unknowns.”

This year, though, he was happy to be back. “I’m a mall person,” he said. “I love the atmosphere and I like to see and feel things before I buy them.”

Mall executives said they’d been preparing for months for a Black Friday surge. Traffic has been ticking up the last month and the on-site Hyatt Regency is booked through the weekend.

“We’re seeing a lot of pent-up demand for in-store shopping,” said senior marketing manager Lindsay Petak. “People want the holiday mall experience they’ve been missing.”

Stores and shopping centers across the country are opening as early as midnight Thursday in hopes the crowds will return. In New Jersey, American Dream, the nation’s newest and largest mall, is promising gifts valued as much as $800 for the first 500 shoppers, along with a dance party, candy cane chute and ice skating with Santa and his elves. Old Saint Nick also will cruise the sprawling shopping and entertainment complex in a pink golf cart, stopping to pose for photos and hand out treats.

The Irvine Spectrum Center in Southern California will start offering free valet parking, ice skating and carousel rides at midnight after Thanksgiving.

Roughly 2 in 3 Americans plan to shop during the Thanksgiving weekend, including 108 million who say they’ll buy online or in-stores on Black Friday, according to the National Retail Federation. The number of consumers expecting to visit a mall or shopping center over the long weekend is expected to double, from 38 to 76 percent, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Overall holiday sales are expected to grow as much as 10.5 percent, to $859 billion, from last year, according to the retail trade group. Consumers, on average, are expected to spend $648 on holiday gifts, about 2 percent less than they did in 2019.

But that spike in demand coincides with constrained supply, as retailers of all sizes struggle to get enough inventory to last through December. Last month, online shoppers encountered 2 billion out-of-stock messages, more than quadruple what they did two years ago, according to data from Adobe Analytics. Electronics, jewelry and clothing were among the most affected categories, followed by home goods and pet products.

The largest chains have been stockpiling holiday inventory for months and, in some cases, chartering their own ships and planes to bring over merchandise. But analysts say an early start to the buying season is starting to wipe out shelves earlier than expected.

At J. Crew, which kicked off its 40-percent-off Black Friday sale on Tuesday, customers are beginning — and finishing — their holiday shopping earlier than they did before the pandemic, according to Lisa Greenwald, the company’s chief merchandising officer. Best Buy has seen a similar surge in early store traffic and expects more customers to buy in person than they did last year, according to chief executive Corie Barry.

“We are ready for more customers in our stores this Black Friday,” Barry said in a call with reporters this week. “But I still think it will feel distinctly different than shopping seasons of two, three years ago where you had huge lines and crushes at the front of the door.”

The big-box chain also is doubling down on in-store and curbside pickup options and free next-day delivery to accommodate those who would rather buy online, she said. Analysts say such hybrid shopping — scanning store shelves before buying online, for example, or opting to pick up online purchases in person — has become a bigger priority for both retailers and consumers during the pandemic.

“Shopping has become a big blur,” said Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “It’s no longer about one or the other. There are a lot of things that are easier to do online, and some things that are more fun to do in stores.”

Kathy Tetzlaff usually does all of her holiday shopping in stores on Christmas Eve. But this year, jolted by headlines warning of product shortages and shipping delays, she started buying online in October. By early November, she’d spent $700 on gifts — including an air fryer for her daughter and ride-on bumper cars for her grandchildren — and declared herself done.

“They kept saying ‘order early,’ so I thought I better get with it and start buying,” said Tezlaff, 61, who lives in Saranac, Mich., and is retired from after a 30-year career in manufacturing. “So now I’m done, sitting here twiddling my thumbs and trying not to buy more.”

Aside from one hiccup — the pink bumper cars she’d hoped to buy were sold out, so she bought red — Tezlaff says everything has gone smoothly. Her orders from Walmart and Amazon arrived within a few days, and she found better-than-expected discounts on everything on her list. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“You can get a good deal any day of the year, so what’s the point of waiting for Black Friday?” she said. “Last year I was running into Target, Burlington [Coat Factory] and Bath & Body Works on Christmas Eve. But this year I’m happy I started early.”

In Fort Mill, S.C, Sherrie Drepaul stopped by Target and Walmart last weekend to buy toys for her children but was surprised by how bare the shelves were.

“The Lego section was empty, Barbies were sold out and a lot of the things in the toy catalogue were just straight up not available,” the 39-year-old said. “It’s like, if you didn’t start in May, you missed out.”

Drepaul ended up buying most of her gifts online, where she toggled through four or five browsers to find the best deals. And, she says, she had to find stand-ins for many of the items on her children’s lists: Instead of the National Geographic Kids Chimpanzee Care & Nurture Vet Set her 9-year-old requested, she bought a unicorn doctor set. And when she saw that all toys from her 6-year-old son’s favorite TV show, “Bluey,” were sold out, she sprang instead for Paw Patrol toys and a Star Wars Grogu plushie. In all, she spent about $500 on toys, roughly the same as in previous years.

“I had to be creative,” she said. “It was like, ‘How can I find something that’s close to what you want, without disappointing everyone on Christmas morning?”

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