Fewer Black Friday deals at Detroit-area stores but shopping endures

Sarah Rahal Jasmin Barmore
The Detroit News

There were no Black Friday shoppers fighting over air-fryers around Metro Detroit this year. Instead, it was among the most civil day-after-Thanksgivings at area retailers in decades, with stores monitoring capacity through socially distanced lines.

In a break with recent tradition, most stores closed on Thanksgiving because of the pandemic but opened as early as 5 a.m. Friday for curbside deliveries and for in-store deals. And those deals weren't what they used to be, industry experts say, with most businesses spreading out sales over several weeks. 

Shoppers had to wait in line at many retailers Friday at the Somerset Collection, because of COVID limits on numbers allowed in stores.

Still, die-hard shoppers couldn't stay away. Some left busy malls empty-handed and admitted they just wanted to get out of the house.

Stephen Czyrka, 16, of Northville was at a Best Buy store in Novi at 7 a.m. Friday. He says he didn't really need anything but picked up an Amazon Echo Auto speaker. "My friend bought three Autos just to hand out as gifts. We were in and out because there's not a lot of people out, and are headed to Target next."

Twelve Oaks Mall was the earliest mall in the area to open, welcoming customers at 7 a.m. American Eagle Outfitters, Aerie, Zumiez, a Lululemon pop-up and the food court were packed with teens who said they didn't have much else to do over the holiday break.

Crowds were relatively small at the Somerset Collection on Black Friday.

"My friend and I came early to avoid the lines, crowds and just looking for some fun clothes," said Morgan Nimmo, 16, from Highland Park. "We got matching outfits from Hollister and sweatshirts from Aerie. Luckily, we haven't had to wait long."

Despite deals at department stores such as Lord & Taylor, which was holding a going-out-of-business sale, many shoppers walked out empty-handed.

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

"Traditionally, traffic does start off lighter in the early morning hours, then progresses through the day," Jones said Friday. "It appears that many of the earlier shoppers are focused on specific stores, with a strategy to get in and accomplish their shopping early today."

More:The latest COVID casualty: Thanksgiving Day shopping

Supporting small businesses

Detroit vs Everybody kicked off Black Friday sales a week early with 50% off all of its Detroit-branded clothing. New this season: "Everybody vs COVID" apparel.

Donya Clowney of Highland Park shops at the Detroit vs Everybody store Friday. The retailer started its Black Friday sale a week early.

Despite the pandemic, the retailer has seen heavy foot traffic at its Eastern Market flagship store, said Ashley Michele, social media manager.

"People tell us the stories of how they can’t go home for Thanksgiving, or just missed a birthday or a graduation," she said. "And so we are able to give that small piece of home back, and I think that has allowed our audience to grow."

Spoiled Forever women's clothing boutique is depending on online shoppers to keep the business going after a tough quarter. The Southfield business unexpectedly had a line stretching before opening Friday with 20%-50% off merchandise.

"COVID taught me how to be prepared for anything,” owner Carla Cotton said. “Before COVID, I would probably get 12 or 18 units of an item and after it sold, I would move onto another product. But after COVID hit, and we had to stay home, I ordered something we call 'stay at home sets,' and I sold probably over 500 sets."

While shopping at the boutique, Cinquetta Avery of Detroit said supporting small businesses is essential.

"COVID is really taking a strain on people and businesses all over," Avery said. "Traditionally I am an online shopper, but this year, I came out to support small businesses, and I am going to two other stores after I leave here, and I don’t plan on going to the mall."

Rosalyn Karamoko, owner of Detroit Is the New Black apparel, said pivoting the brick-and-mortar site into a community space helped the downtown Detroit business survive through the pandemic. In place of discounts, the Woodward Avenue store organized a Friendsgiving with a Black-owned food truck and DJ for Friday night.

"We do workshops around retail and merchandising, and just use the space more of the teaching and community space. I think it's really forced us to pivot and rethink about how we activate a retail space going forward," Karamoko said.

Inside malls

Area malls have reduced occupancy by regulating the number of shoppers coming in as well as encouraging social-distancing and buying online to pick up in-store or curbside.

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," general manager Gary Neumann said. "We added curbside pickup at all entries, and people are loving the purchase-online, pick-up-in-store options."

At Somerset Collection, stores are operating at 30% capacity and the south complex appeared to be busy Friday afternoon. The Troy mall is also offering a free delivery service for up to 60 miles, said spokeswoman Linda McIntosh.

"Stores are using virtual lines this year where a customer can text the store and reserve their place in line," she said. "And when it is their turn to come into the store, a representative from the store will call the customer and let them know," she said.

Black Friday's decline

Black Friday has accounted for a significant chunk of annual sales for 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."

Most sales touted between 20%-40% off at large retailers. For individual items, there are deals to be found, Horwitz said.

"Some folks will do Black Friday no matter what, but firms will find themselves having to limit capacity (Walmart already is), and I suspect people will prefer to spend the time with family rather than risk getting sick out shopping," Horwitz said. "Plus retailers really want to be careful, too; no one wants their Black Friday sale to be the source of the Black Plague."

This holiday season could force some businesses to close their doors indefinitely, said Jon Vincent, co-founder of EarlyBlackFriday.com, a site that consolidates Black Friday ads from hundreds of retailers.

He said the uncertainty of 2020 is comparable to the financial crisis of 2008.

"Businesses feel the pain and understand customers don't have the money to over-buy as usual," he said. "This year isn't the best of deals. ... Retail needs to conserve capital and can’t afford to lose money on some deals they could have afforded to do so in the past."

His advice for those heading out to shop this weekend: "Bring patience. You’re not going to see people fighting over toasters, but perhaps long, long lines."


Twitter: @SarahRahal_