Black Friday shoppers brave supply backlogs and COVID risks

Ashton Caudillo left with his father early Friday morning at Westfield Santa Anita in Arcadia looking for a hard-to-find PlayStation 5 long before the mall opens at 7 a.m. What they found surprised them: only a handful of other buyers.

The 20-year-old’s father, Lawrence, has a distinct memory of the Black Fridays past, when hordes of people made the experience less than pleasant, so he wasn’t complaining.

“Black Friday was like Disneyland, queuing for 45 minutes to spend money. I’d rather shoot myself in the foot than do that. So that’s cool, ”said the elder Caudillo with a smile. “I like it when there aren’t many people around.”

In the most consuming nation on Earth, Black Friday in the United States has long been seen as the ultimate mirror, reflecting all that is good, bad, and average in the world’s largest economy.

This year the message seems to be: Black Friday is not what it used to be. A historic shift to online sales, the lingering pandemic and uncertainty surrounding a long-lasting supply chain crisis are changing the way Americans shop.

Around Los Angeles County, foot traffic in malls and stores that have long been preparing for the onslaught of Black Friday consumers appeared relatively slow for the biggest shopping day of the year.

There were less than 15 people in line at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza an hour before it opened at 10 a.m., with entire rows of the double-story parking lot still empty when the doors opened. Crowds were also smaller than usual Friday morning outside the JCPenney at the Glendale Galleria, a major Black Friday destination, and at the Empire Center open-air mall in Burbank.

“Honestly, we’re pretty dumbfounded to see such minimal participation. We really expected a lot more people to be here this early, ”said Elin Markarian, 18, who joined two friends to wait outside Best Buy in Burbank Mall for four hours before it opened.

They finished second in a line of less than 100 people, barely enough to go around the store.

In Arcadia, after-hours business resumed at Westfield, but it was not the door-breaking experience that mall workers expected. It was a nice surprise for Hot Topic’s business associate Michele Uribe, who said the day felt “like a regular mall day.”

“I work in a grocery store and just finished working our busiest day of the year,” she said. “It’s a little break from the crowds. “

The slowdown was not entirely unexpected.

While the National Retail Federation predicts that total holiday retail sales will increase between 8.5% and 10.5% compared to the same time last year – enough to possibly break all-time records – the numbers represent sales for the full two months of November and December.

This reflects the larger window for blue chip holiday shopping that has emerged since the pandemic. Traditionally, seasonal shopping starts in earnest with Black Friday, but with COVID-19 stores closing last year and retailers launching the bargains online earlier, that rush is now starting weeks earlier.

Online shopping also continues to siphon people out of stores. Internet sales are forecast to increase 10% from last year to a record $ 207 billion in November and December, according to Adobe Analytics

The in-store shopping experience was also damaged this year by supply chain bottlenecks that led to a shortage of merchandise, with many stockouts. And the biggest draw of the day – the discounts – was largely disappointing, as the price hike was driven by inflation at a 30-year high.

Meanwhile, newly empowered workers have forced wage increases, but many retail jobs remain vacant. And a recent spate of thefts from high-end stores in Northern and Southern California has put retail workers on edge.

The Delta coronavirus variant and resistance to vaccination, which fill hospital beds and make in-person purchases potentially risky, may also scare the risks away.

Still, buyers who waited for the doors to open early Friday were happy to step out from behind their computers.

“It’s kind of back to normal for us,” said Christina Perez, queuing outside Target at the West Valley Mall in the town of Tracy, San Joaquin County. At 6:45 a.m., around 40 people were waiting for the store to open at 7 a.m. “We haven’t been able to do that for the past two years,” Perez said.

She wasn’t sure exactly what she was going to buy, and she just wanted to hang out with her family. Perez said she caught COVID-19 twice and her husband also fell ill with the virus. Now fully recovered and vaccinated, the couple were ready to venture out again.

“We love the interaction,” she said of the in-person shopping.

Outside Best Buy earlier, at around 4:45 a.m., 19-year-old Arturo Zaragoza was sitting on the sidewalk halfway in the line of about 30 people. His target: a PlayStation 5 for his little brother, and a MacBook for himself.

Zaragoza wasn’t sure what the exact deal would be for either item, but he said he planned to “buy it anyway”.

“Let’s go for the experience. The experience of standing in line, ”he said with a laugh. “It’s something to do, I guess.”

Zaragoza said he believes Best Buy’s decision to shut down on Thanksgiving Day, along with other large retailers, may actually reduce traffic on Friday, with people potentially unwilling to get up early after a holiday evening. food and drink to search the aisles.

Supply chain issues are expected to mar the shopping experience on Friday and for the rest of the year, although there are signs the bottleneck of international trade begins to relax. A full return to normal is not expected until next year, when the current impasse is resolved and factories in China return to full capacity.

“I think this will be the first year with a serious out of stock,” said Luis Lainez, manager of a T-Mobile store at the West Hollywood Gateway.

Large retailers such as Walmart and Target signal that they are well stocked for Black Friday and the rest of the shopping season, but small retailers that don’t have the weight to charter entire cargo ships aren’t doing as well.

Retail consultant Britt Beemer, whose company conducts consumer surveys, believes “there will be a lot of shock” when shoppers find so many goods out of stock, and he fears that younger consumers are used to it. to get what they want online can really hurt stores.

“The under 30 group doesn’t forgive at all. Forty-five percent said they go on social media and tell all their friends not to shop at this store, ”said Beemer, founder and chairman of America’s Research Group.

Of course, the supply shortage isn’t just a brick and mortar disappointment. Online out-of-stock messages have increased this month and are up 261% from November 2019, according to Adobe.

Another major hurdle for retailers and shoppers alike is a decreasing number of people willing to work in an industry where long hours of standing, facing often angry customers, is evident – an experience that has grown to 10 on Black Friday. .

The Glendale Galleria opened at 9 a.m. on Friday, two hours later than last year, at least partially, management said, due to a shortage of workers.

The pandemic has prompted many older workers who saw their portfolios grow fat during the rise in stock markets to retire earlier than expected. Others, with a new outlook on life and work, are quitting overly demanding jobs, while the millions of workers who were laid off en masse last year have adapted to a changing economy.

“People have found various ways to survive, and that includes relying on other family members, drastically cutting costs, working in the gig economy, finding additional jobs here and there,” he said. said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. “This means that workers can be a little more selective about the jobs they want to take. “

Times editors Jaimie Ding, Kenan Draughorne and Jonah Valdez contributed to this report.

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