The latest COVID casualty: Thanksgiving Day shopping

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Allen Park — A night normally packed with long lines in front of stores, hot deals and midnight traffic was practically deserted Thursday in Metro Detroit as malls and most retailers were closed to Thanksgiving Day shopping amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A few dozen people were at the Allen Park Meijer store shortly before it closed at 4 p.m., grabbing last-minute Thanksgiving items and taking advantage of its day-before Black Friday buy-one-get-one for $1 deals.

Jenny Fought of Dearborn Heights had the Meijer store in Allen Park largely to herself on Thanksgiving Day before it closed at 4 p.m.

Meijer manager James Cherman said there were many fewer in-store shoppers Thursday than he anticipated, and predicts a long-lasting change in the industry.

"This pandemic might change Black Friday for years to come," he said. "We'll see how this weekend goes."

Jenny Fought from Dearborn Heights finished cooking Thanksgiving dinner early and headed to Meijer to shop for her three young kids. Her cart was filled with half-off game, toys and stuffed animals.

"I was pretty bummed this year when they said many stores would be shut down, and I'm not a good online shopper," said Fought, 39. "It's probably better though, because I'm spending more time at home with family this year rather than shopping."

Victoria Kelsey from Dearborn was pleasantly surprised to have the Meijer electronic aisles to herself.

"I absolutely hate Black Friday," said Kelsey, 31. "There's nowhere else that was open and it sucks, but I would rather people be safe. There's nothing that would make it worth it for me. I hate crowds and would rather pay full price than to stand in line for hours. I'm glad even Meijer is closing early."

The store hopes to attract shoppers with hot items like 40 Sony PlayStation 5's for sale only online Friday to be picked up through the store's curbside pickup.

Jerome Stevenson of Detroit, with his son Jerome III, didn't have to wait in the checkout line for long at the Allen Park Meijer store on Thanksgiving day.

Still, Jerome Stevenson researched the LG 75-inch television he wanted and found Meijer to be the only store to have it in stock at a competitive price.

"This year is obviously different. For my son and I, this is our regular routine and this TV was on sale for $699," said Stevenson, 46, from Detroit. "The benefit of this year is that there are no long lines, which is great."

Black Friday forecast

Apple Wick, assistant general manager at Macomb Mall, said comparing this year to any previous year is almost impossible with the pandemic affecting every aspect of American life.

"Retailers have been preparing for this weekend and season since reopening from the lockdown in June," Wick said. "Guests can expect to find retailers adhering to not only the State of Michigan mandates and CDC recommendations, but also that of their respective corporate guidelines and promoting a 'shop smart, shop safe' approach."

The malls have reduced occupancy by metering shoppers in and out, encouraging social-distancing and encouraging buying online and then picking it up in-store or curbside.

Many mall retailers have already rolled out Black Friday week and weekend sales and offers, straying from the traditional Thursday to Sunday deals, Wick said.

Daniel Jones, general manager of Twelve Oaks Mall, said Black Friday activity is difficult to predict this year. He said that majority of retailers have had deals available throughout the month to eliminate the traditional sense of urgency.

"People certainly have an appetite for shopping, but have more choices for ways to accomplish it," he said. "At Twelve Oaks Mall, we have designated a number of close parking spaces at each of the entrances for a curbside pickup option."

Malls have also launched Santa's Flight Academy, conducting visits with Santa by appointment only. Black Santa will make appearances at Twelve Oaks on Saturday and Sunday, and at Great Lakes Crossing Outlets on Wednesday and Thursday.

Great Lakes Crossing officials say November has been a busy month and expect the trend to continue through the weekend.

"People have been shopping earlier, so we don’t expect crowds to be as bad," said general manager Gary Neumann. "We added curbside pickup at all entries and people are loving the purchase online, pick up in-store options."

Impact on businesses

Matt Craig, regional vice president of Meijer, said expanding holiday sales to be a weeklong event was successful. The stores have added curbside pick-up and additional home departments earlier in the season.

He says more shoppers are decorating their homes, where they are spending more time. "We're seeing a huge trend with outdoor decor, lights, firewood. Also, parents want to make this Christmas special and are empathetic because of circumstances this year. People are buying more."

Black Friday accounted for a significant chunk of annual sales for many years, but that's become less the case as businesses pivot to online, said Steve Horwitz, an economics professor at Ball State University.

"Black Friday was on the way out before COVID, and COVID has probably accelerated that significantly," he said. "The large chains will likely survive this as they have the e-commerce infrastructure to meet demand, but smaller firms will find this year to be a real challenge unless they have prepared over the last few months by really getting better at providing online sales or various forms of delivery."

Shop small 

State leaders are asking Michigan residents to beat lines and avoid crowds by shopping at local small businesses on Black Friday and through the holiday shopping season.

The Michigan Economic Development Corp. is encouraging shopping, eating and traveling locally through a new “Support Local” campaign in order to make sure small businesses make it through the winter. One in five jobs in Michigan are in the retail industry, according to the Michigan Retailers Association.

Michigan businesses, being in a northern state, are at a disadvantage to expand outdoors this winter to accommodate social distancing and comply with health orders, said Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan. They are being creative with providing curbside pickups and personal shoppers, but they need help more than ever, he said.

“We need to kind of get back to this 'Let’s support our local businesses mindset,' because they’re the ones that are keeping our downtowns vibrant, they’re the ones that are employing our kids and our neighbors and ourselves."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

The Associated Press contributed