CHICAGO - Bargain hunters ventured out in chilly weather to buy Christmas gifts on Black Friday, finding stores less crowded than in years past as major US retailers opened their doors early.
A shift online, COVID fears and less-steep discounts have thinned crowds on the day after the US Thanksgiving holiday, which kicks off the year-end shopping season. Many shoppers are also choosing curbside pick-up rather than venturing inside.
"What a lot of customers are doing is drive-up, they don't even enter the store. I think that's one of the reasons it looks quiet," said Ian Korolenko, 29, a vacuum salesperson asked by Target to help out on Black Friday.
"I also think a lot of these stores do their Black Friday deals earlier in the week now, and a lot of them go online now."
Macy's is extending its digital delivery deadline closer to Christmas, Chief Executive Jeff Gennette told Reuters in an interview. The deadline will now be Dec. 22 or Dec. 23, versus Dec. 15 last year. If shoppers order by 10 a.m., they could have same-day delivery in certain stores and categories.
"You're still going to have that last-minute procrastinator that's going to come in on Christmas Eve," Gennette said.
Francisco Martinez, 22, a delivery driver, was one of more than 100 people standing outside a Walmart Supercenter in the Kilbourn Park neighborhood of Chicago before 5 a.m., in 20 degree Fahrenheit (-7 degree Celsius) weather.
As people queued, a Walmart worker handed out coupons for items such as Apple AirPods and watches and Gateway laptops.
"I want to get a 65-inch Element TV - it's $350 off," said Martinez, who was wearing three layers of clothing, adding: "I think I'm going to get it - it's not as crowded as it used to be."
'EARLY ONLINE BIRDS GET THE WORM'
As online shopping has taken off, Black Friday crowds have dwindled, particularly in 2020 when people were still unvaccinated and worried about COVID-19.
Dresden Davis, 28, said she's doing her Black Friday shopping from her couch now that sales aren't "Black Friday-ing" like they used to. "I feel like a lot of places only have 20-25% off, when usually Black Friday sales are more," said Davis, a strategy and planning specialist in Odenton, Maryland.
For November and December, online sales are estimated to hit a record $207 billion, up 10% from last year, according to Adobe Digital Economy Index. The National Retail Federation has forecast combined brick-and-mortar and online holiday sales would grow 8.5%-10.5% to between $843.4 billion and $859 billion.
Walmart, Best Buy and Target this year did not require vaccinated shoppers to wear masks, but some indoor malls kept existing mask requirements.
At the Chicago-area stores Reuters visited, both employees and shoppers generally wore masks.
Realtor Kelsey Hupp, 36, for years shopped at the Macy’s department store in downtown Chicago on Black Friday, and she kept with the tradition this year.
"Chicago is pretty safe and masked and vaccinated. I got my booster so I’m not too concerned about it," she said. Macy's Gennette said Black Friday store traffic "exceeded our expectations in the first couple of hours."
A Deloitte survey showed people already spent 80%-85% of their budgets before Black Friday.
"People are looking to get back to normal," said Rod Sides, Deloitte's US retail leader. "The early online birds, and the birds that went into the store, may get the worm."
Another concern is that an ongoing supply chain logjam might prevent retailers from stocking sought-after items such as Hoverboard scooters, Oculus Quest 2 headsets, Nerf toys, AirPods Pro earbuds and MacBook Air laptops.
US consumers enter the holiday season flush with spending power thanks to a still-hefty pile of savings from multiple rounds of government pandemic relief, and double-digit wage increases as businesses compete for workers.
Online and brick-and-mortar retailing come together just outside the store. Retailers including Target, Macy's and Walmart allocated more space and workers to online pick-up stations and curbside parking.
Walmart, the world's biggest retailer, hired 150,000 workers for the holidays, many for these jobs. Walmart is giving users an hour to check out after scheduling a time to retrieve orders.
Target added more than 18,000 "drive-up" parking spaces, more than doubling spots versus last year. Target's website warns of "limited qualities" and "no rainchecks."
Curbside pickup increased 92% in November compared to 2019, according to Adobe Digital Economy Index.
Electronics - in short supply due to a global chip shortage - had the highest out-of-stock levels, followed by personal care, and home and garden, according to Adobe. Through most of November, out-of-stocks were up 261% versus 2019.
"Instead of seeing eight piled-high boxes of TVs, you might see three or four stacks of TVs," NPD analyst Marshal Cohen said.
Elver Gomez, 21, came to Best Buy at 6 a.m. but found the Apple and Microsoft laptops he wanted out of stock.
"It seems like this year it's either out of stock or isn't that great of a price," the student said. "I'm not going to get what I wanted."