Crowds small on Black Friday, as shoppers include distance, masks on lists

Shoppers line up at Tanger Outlets in Rehoboth Beach on Black Friday. (Special to the State News/Chuck Snyder)

DOVER — Sitting idly behind the counter at Piercing Pagoda, Nicole Wood sensed a noticeable lack of buzz inside the Dover Mall on Friday morning.

After arriving for work at 6 a.m., her first sale — a $25 pair of silver earrings — didn’t come until two hours later.

Black Friday never seemed so quiet as 2020’s version, according to Ms. Wood.

“It’s starting to pick up now, but sales-wise, compared to last year, we’re probably at (a third) of what we normally do,” she said.

Maryland residents Wendy Kendall of Galena and Amanda Miller of Kennedyville both held four tightly packed bags inside the mall, where they had been shopping since 6 a.m. They both said they believe that COVID-19 worries likely kept many shoppers home and pushed them to online sales.

However, health concerns weren’t going to stop the friends from continuing a tradition of shopping together on Black Friday for at least 10 years.

“I’m not worried about it, as long as everyone does their part with their masks, washing their hands, keeping social distance,” Ms. Kendall said. “As long as they do that, I feel like we can all move around as normal.”

Many retailers closed their doors Thanksgiving Day but beefed up their safety protocols to reassure wary customers about coming in on Black Friday.

Stores have also moved their doorbuster deals online and ramped up curbside pickup options as a last grasp at sales before the year ends and they head into the dark days of winter with the pandemic still raging.

“Black Friday is still critical,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “No retailer wants it to be tarnished. It’s still vital to get their consumers spending and get consumers into the holiday mood.”

Holding four bags inside the Dover Mall, Titus Saahn had plenty of room to maneuver.

“It’s definitely crowded where everyone is rushing around,” the Smyrna resident said. “(But) it doesn’t look like Black Friday to me. I usually get up and try to get to as many places as I can, but it’s just not that way this year.”

The scene wasn’t any busier at the Walmart in Cheswold, Mr. Saahn said. He arrived at 7 a.m. and was “shocked. … I was literally expecting a crowd and cars to be everywhere, but it was nothing.

“I asked the people there, ‘Do you have Black Friday sales?’ It was strange because I knew I was in the right place.”

Eddie Dean, of Dover, along US 13 trying to draw attention to Black Friday sales at Ashley Homestore. (Special to the State News/Gary Emeigh)

Adam Faulkner of Hartly left the Walmart with a gift for a family member in his first stop of the day. It didn’t take long to make the buy and load it into his vehicle, he said.

“It’s definitely different. It’s not as busy” he said. “You walk in. You walk out. There’s no lines. It still feels empty here.”

Mr. Faulkner was just getting started a bit after 9 a.m. He planned to continue his search for doorbusters at Best Buy, Target, the Dover Mall and perhaps more.

Over at Best Buy on North Dupont Highway in Dover, a line of 25 or so would-be customers waited in a line outside to enter. While there may have been some good deals, the governor’s emergency order limiting the number of folks inside a retailer likely contributed to the situation, as well.

Inside the mall, a dozen people were waiting outside the Bath & Body Works store, as an employee let one person inside for every one that exited.

“I think people are scared of the COVID. The pandemic has affected this greatly, but you go online, and it’s booming,” said shopper Andrea Andrews of Hartly.

Joining Ms. Andrews was her 11-year-old daughter, Jenna, who opined that “the sales aren’t really that big either.”

Jenna was hoping for clothes and shoes for Christmas gifts, along with a pingpong table. Her mom said time spent together was worth something, as well.

“She likes the one-on-one time,” Ms. Andrews said. We get together-time, and she looks forward to the special treat she gets when we’re done.”

Mike Stanson made the trip from the Fenwick Island area to do some shopping at Lowe’s in Millsboro.

“I’m not a crazy Black Friday shopper. I’m really just here to get a couple things,” said Mr. Stanson. “But, yeah, I take notice (of COVID-19 precautions). It doesn’t seem like it’s packed inside. I guess there is some good deals in there.

“But I’m not a fanatic shopper. I don’t go out to 25 stores or get up at 4 o’clock in the morning. But I do need a few things, so . … As long as it is relatively calm, I’m OK with it,” said Mr. Stanson. “And you can do shopping online. They’ll deliver it.”

Seaford native Tish Thomas and her 5-year-old son, Andrew, made a sneak-peek stop Friday morning at GameStop in Seaford. They now reside in Columbia, Maryland, and were back in Delaware visiting family.

“We just came to look at the games to see what kind he likes, to give Santa an idea,” said Ms. Thomas. “I am not really a Black Friday shopper. I looked online last night. It’s safer this year.”

The day after Thanksgiving has been losing its luster as the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season for the past several years, with more stores offering holiday discounts throughout the month.

Still, Black Friday has remained the busiest day of the year, according to ShopperTrak, and is expected to hold that title again this year.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, has taken an optimistic view, predicting that shoppers will be looking for reasons to celebrate. The trade group expects sales for the November and December period to increase between 3.6% and 5.2% over 2019, compared with a 4% increase the year before. Holiday sales have averaged gains of 3.5% over the past five years.

“After all they’ve been through, we think there’s going to be a psychological factor that they owe it to themselves and their families to have a better-than-normal holiday,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz.

Staff writer Glenn Rolfe and The Associated Press contributed to this article.