NEW YORK (AP) — Black Friday enthusiasts woke up before dawn and traveled cross-state to their favorite malls in search of hot deals, kicking off a shortened shopping season that intensified the scramble between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But at some malls, shoppers were surprised at the relatively light crowds, which pointed to the ever-growing popularity of online shopping. This year, many people also got a head start on gift hunting, lured by early holiday deals from retailers trying to compensate for the shorter season.
The shopping season is the shortest since 2013 because Thanksgiving fell on the last Thursday in November — the latest possible date it could be.
Shoppers up since the wee hours slept in chairs at Nashville’s Opry Mills mall, known for its outlet stores. Outside, deal-seekers were still fighting for parking spots by midmorning.
Haley Wright left Alabama at 4 a.m. to arrive at the Tennessee mall by 7 a.m. She makes the annual trip because she says the stores offer better deals and a more fun environment than the shops back home.
“I let my husband do the online shopping; I do Black Friday,” she said.
Adobe Analytics predicts a loss of $1 billion in online revenue from a shortened season. Still, it expects online sales will reach $143.7 billion, up 14.1% from last year’s holiday season.
The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, baked the shorter season into its forecast, but it says the real drivers will be the job market. It forecasts that holiday sales will rise between 3.8% and 4.2%, an increase from the disappointing 2.1% growth in the November and December 2018 period that came well short of the group’s prediction.
Last year’s holiday sales were hurt by turmoil over the White House trade policy with China and a delay of nearly a month in data collection because of a government shutdown. This year’s holiday forecast is above the average holiday sales growth of 3.7% over the previous five years.
NRF expects online and other non-store sales, which are included in the total, to increase between 11% and 14% for the holiday period.
Adobe Analytics said Thanksgiving Day hit new records for online shopping. Consumers spent $4.2 billion on Thanksgiving, a 14.5% increase from the holiday a year ago. Black Friday was on track to hit $7.4 billion.
“This has been a really good start,” said Rod Sides, vice chairman and leader of U.S. retail and distribution practice at Deloitte LLP.
With discounts coming earlier this year, Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group Inc., believes the biggest sales day of the year will be a toss-up between Black Friday and the last Saturday before Christmas.
As online sales surges, some retailers including Costco.com and H&M grappled with brief outages, according to technology company Catchpoint.
Target reported Friday that 1 million more customers used its app to shop Black Friday deals compared with last year. The discounter said customers bought big ticket items like TVs, Apple iPads and Apple Watches.
In Europe, though, Black Friday drew a backlash from activists, politicians and even consumers who criticized the U.S. shopping phenomenon as capitalism run amok. Climate demonstrators blocked a shopping mall near Paris and gathered in front of Amazon’s headquarters. Workers at Amazon in Germany went on strike for better pay. Some French lawmakers called for banning Black Friday altogether.
Attention in the U.S. shifted Friday to malls, where traffic has been on decline with the increasing popularity of online shopping.
Two Bath & Body Works saleswomen wearing reindeer antler headbands shouted about promotions at the trickle of shoppers walking through Newport Center in Jersey, City, New Jersey.
“It looks empty for Black Friday,” said Latoya Robinson, a student who lives in New York and planned to stop by Forever 21 and Macy’s to shop for herself.
In Kansas, Kassi Adams and her husband drove 50 miles (80 kilometers) to Town East Mall in Wichita, even though the couple were nearly done with their holiday shopping. They were surprised to see how few were people at the mall, and even boasted about getting a choice parking spot.
“There is really not much of a crowd to fight,” she said.
Jill Renslow, senior Vice President at Bloomington, Minnesota-based Mall of America, reported that traffic on Black Friday should exceed the 240,000 count from a year ago. She said many people are coming the country’s biggest mall for the deals of up to 50% off but also to check out new stores.
More than half of consumers started their holiday shopping early this year, and nearly a quarter of purchases have already been made, according to the annual survey released by the NRF and Prosper Insights & Analytics.
Besides the rise of online shopping, deals starting before Halloween were part of the reason for thinner crowds, said Charles O’Shea, a retail analyst at Moody’s.
Theodora Hatcher said she started holiday shopping two weeks ago, lured by online deals. Still, she arrived at Macy’s Herald Square in Manhattan with her son at 6. a.m. on Friday.
As for the shortened calendar, she prefers it.
“It adds pressure,” she said.