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Black Friday fizzle: Malls busy, but not mobbed

Black Friday, once an electricity-filled shopping day propelling a mad rush of consumers to stores, played out more like any typical weekend shopping day – stores were busy, but not mobbed.

Thanksgiving Day shoppers gobbled up savings on Thursday, but at a more subdued pace than in years past, with doorbuster lines about half as long as last year.

Hundreds of people still lined up for drastically reduced prices on TVs, toys and tablets on Thursday, but not as many as did when Black Friday was observed in the wee post-Thanksgiving hours, or even when the event was held at midnight Friday morning or 8 p.m. Thursday night.

This year’s major store openings happened at 5 and 6 p.m. Thursday. Less than 5 percent of shoppers were in line by 5:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Shoppers speculated the Thursday crowds were either still adjusting to the new Black Friday schedule or they wanted to finish their Thanksgiving dinners before they headed out to shop.

Whatever the reason, one thing was clear: traffic patterns had shifted.

“Six p.m. was a little disappointing, which was nothing I didn’t expect, but by 10 p.m. it was a mad house,” said Russ Fulton, general manager at Eastern Hills Mall.

That was the case at other malls, too, with customers trickling in after dinner but picking up the pace as the night wore on.

At Target in Cheektowaga, people in the customary three-hour lines to cash out breezed through in 10 minutes Thursday night and early Friday morning. Some doorbuster items, which are usually snapped up within minutes of the store’s opening, lasted through the night.

Unlike in other years, there weren’t major lulls or intense, frenzied periods, but a steady stream of customers throughout the overnight period – enough for the store to keep 16 cash registers open the entire time, instead of dropping to the usual eight after midnight.

Consumers said they liked the new shopping patterns, that stores were less congested and lines were shorter.

Andrew Morris, a 10-time Black Friday shopper from Toronto who slept overnight at Best Buy, said it was all the same whether the sales started late Thursday or early Friday.

“It all evens out because if you want to get the best deal, you have to do an overnight either way,” he said.

He likes that stores staggered their opening times this year and offered deals at different intervals throughout the night. That allowed him to more easily hit each sale – taking naps in the car between stores – instead of having to pick just one or two.

But many said the earlier opening time simply shifted the shopping patterns, spreading what used to be Black Friday sales over a two-day period. If that’s the case, experts wonder if the move to Thanksgiving simply increased retailers’ costs by requiring them to pay workers premium holiday wages and absorb the additional costs associated with being open an additional day.

That wasn’t worth trampling Thanksgiving for, critics said.

Criticism of Thanksgiving Day shoppers and stores that opened on the holiday was sustained and fierce Thursday and Friday. Social media users hurled insults at shoppers, saying they should be “ashamed of themselves.”

Special ire was directed at Walden Galleria, which caused controversy when it mandated that retailers open stores at 6 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. Pyramid Management Group, which owns the mall, has never commented on the situation, but a letter obtained by The Buffalo News dated Nov. 20 informed tenants it would not fine stores that “refused” to open on Thanksgiving, contrary to media reports.

“We never had any intention of doing so,” the letter read. “The decision to open on Thanksgiving is driven by market conditions as well as the desires of our customers.”

Security walked the mall at 6 p.m. to make a list of stores that didn’t open, and did the same at 8 p.m. But a retail source said that was done to help the mall analyze how opening times correlated with store earnings, not to keep track of who to fine.

Among the closed stores were Ann Taylor, Ruum, Crazy 8, Arby’s, Teavana, Pottery Barn Kids, Game Stop, Tim Hortons, Sports Obsession, Sleep Number, Pepper Palace, Men’s Wearhouse and Tux, Giftology and national children’s retailer Gymboree. Key Bank, salons, tailor and cellphone stores were also closed.

Gymboree had posted a hand-written sign that said it was closed “to honor our employees and their families.”

Rani Salemi, a co-owner of pop-up shop Sunshine and Bluebirds at Walden Galleria, worked the store with her family members so employees wouldn’t have to. She said the increased traffic and sales made opening on Thanksgiving worth it.

“People were on a mission,” Salemi said. “Everyone who came in was ready to shop. If they came in and were just looking, that might have been different.”

The timing of this year’s in-store sales may have pushed more shoppers online, where they could shop from the comfort of their recliners. Between midnight and 10 a.m. Friday, online sales grew 24 percent to $715 million, according to data from 4,500 retail sites analyzed by Adobe Digital Index, a digital marketing research group. That was a slower start than expected, but sales for the day were still on track to reach $2.4 billion, the firm said.

Target declared Thursday its strongest online sales day ever, while Walmart said the day was its second strongest. Neither company disclosed sales numbers, but both had made a concerted push for online traffic this year.

Numbers are not yet available to show whether retailers’ early-bird shopping strategy paid off, or if the usual Black Friday traffic was simply spread over two days. But analysts are predicting the holiday shopping season to be a winner overall, increasing 4.1 percent to $616.9 billion over last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

“It’s going to be a watershed year,” said Burt Flickinger III, a retail expert and managing director of Strategic Resource Group.

The retailers that will do best, he predicted, are the ones that were closed on Thanksgiving. Some of those stores, TJ Maxx, Marshall’s and Home Depot, have posted some of retail’s strongest earnings of late and all were closed on the holiday. The same goes for high-end store Tiffany’s, which has a strong online clientele in the Buffalo market, as well as Costco and Nordstrom, both of which are headed here, he said.

That leads some to believe the Thanksgiving openings were an “act of desperation” for struggling retailers such as JC Penney and Sears.

“They’re running scared,” said Arun Jain, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management.