Back in the day, Black Friday was just that — Black Friday.

Akin to a retail holiday, the annual day of holiday shopping featured oodles of advertised blockbuster deals and deep discounts on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

But Black Friday — which traditionally has launched the holiday shopping season —  has morphed into something different in recent years.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic adds a layer of concern for shoppers, especially for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. As a result, retailers are working with consumers, offering curbside pickup, requiring face masks and proper social distancing, and putting a focus on online shopping, even facetime with guests to help them make their choices.

Yet even with the crisis, merchants are expecting a good turnout Friday. Some started their Black Friday sales even earlier this season.

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The frenzied Thanksgiving-to-Christmas holiday shopping retail sprint seems to get underway earlier and earlier each year. Black Friday sales first started to creep into Thanksgiving Day and, more recently, even earlier into the month of November.

Ready to get their shopping over and done with, many consumers don’t wait for Black Friday anymore. And neither do the retailers.

“A lot of retailers are saying, ‘Not just sales on Black Friday and Thanksgiving weekend,'” said Katherine Cullen, the National Retail Federation’s senior director of industry and consumer insights. “They’re offering the same deals in-store and online so people won’t be pressured to go to the store to get the best price.”

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Cullen started noticing Black Friday-related deals early last month.

“Really, with (Amazon) Prime Day happening in October,” she said, “I’ve noticed that several retailers are having Giftober sales. I noticed them early. I think really heading into November, I saw a lot of momentum around this and focusing on deals.”

Because of the pandemic — with cases on the rise in North Carolina and across the country — we are entering the holiday shopping season with a lot of unknowns.

“Things are changing daily on what will impact on what happens on Black Friday,” Cullen said. “From what we have seen, consumers still have a lot of holiday shopping to do. They are excited about shopping for the rest of the season. We are expecting a lot of shopping to occur online, as pickup at the stores or curbside. Where they can order something online and go to their local store, and it will be ready in a few hours.”

Unlike previous years, the National Retail Federation is forgoing its traditional forecast on the number of people expected to shop over the extended Thanksgiving weekend. Instead, the trade group plans to release a post-Thanksgiving weekend report on how things went for the industry.

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“I think we’ll see different ways of shopping this season. We’ve really seen Black Friday change over the years,” she said. “It used to be the one big day when people would line up. But last year, we saw just as many people shop online as on Black Friday. People are comfortable shopping online and finding something.”

Managers at several of the big-box retail stores in Fayetteville were not available for comment, referring questions to their corporate offices.

Black Friday is one of the busiest days for Academy Sports + Outdoors, the store manager said.

At Academy Sports + Outdoors, store officials planned to begin Black Friday sales on Sunday. On Black Friday, the store will open for shoppers at 5 a.m.

“Black Friday is one of our busiest days,” said Shaquieshia Champagne, sales manager for the Skibo Road store. “We’re not open on Thanksgiving, so it’s typically a good time for us.”

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“We’re just anticipating the same Black Friday as it normally is,” Champagne said. “Heavy foot traffic. Not too much, but about the same.”

Like many stores, Academy Sports + Outdoors has made adjustments to serve customers who don't want to fight large crowds or go into stores during COVID-19.

Like many stores, Academy Sports has made the necessary adjustments to continue serving those who don’t want to fight large crowds or go out shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 “We offer curbside assistance and buy-online pickup in the store,” she said. “Those are two new programs for us. They started a couple of months before the pandemic.”

The business also is adhering to recommended and mandated safety measures such as proper social distancing, posted markers on the floors, professional cleaning, including the cleaning of hand baskets and shopping carts, and hand sanitizer available throughout the store, Champagne said.

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Michael Fleishman, the owner of Fleishman’s Tiny Town on Fort Bragg Road, said Black Friday is always a big day for his store, just as it is for most retailers.

“We do have some sales going on at Tiny Town,” Fleishman said. “We will have big Black Friday sales, and I’m looking forward to the start of the Christmas season. This has been an unusual year. We expect it to be a good holiday season. People want to make it special.”

In terms of precautionary measures to keep customers and employees safe, Fleishman said, store associates are asking people to wear a face covering and maintain proper social distancing. He said Tiny Town offers plenty of room for customers to shop in comfort and safety.

“We’re not a big-box stop; we’re a big boutique,” he said.

Tiny Town is doing more online sales all the time, he said.

“And we’re happy to do curbside. If people need help and would rather do their shopping online, just call us. We’ll do facetime with you. We’ll help you pick it out and gift wrap it for you and take it to your car.”

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While in recent years the profitable jolt of a single-day Black Friday has been watered down, so to speak, over the years, it continues to have value for those in the retail business.

“We really look at the whole (Thanksgiving) weekend,” Cullen said. “It’s certainly a big event for people, but we also know it’s not only a sales event. People are really stretching out their shopping over November and through December.”  

Not every business, however, buys into the Black Friday concept to generate year-end register-ringing profits.

That’s the case with The Pilgrim Gifts & Antiques in Westwood Shopping Center.

“We are doing it as a usual day,” owner and manager Joan Poole said. “From here on  out, we’re going to be busy. Black Friday usually doesn’t tend to be like a high-traffic time for us. A lot of the stores are running sales, running all kinds of sales. We don’t do that. It’s a normal busy day for us.”

Poole said The Pilgrim will probably serve hot chocolate to customers if the weather is cold on Black Friday. 

“Lots of people are in town for that week because of family,” she said. “They come here. We see customers who have been coming here the last 20, 30 years.”

That said, Poole said Black Friday tends to be a busy and profitable day for her store.

“Christmas is coming,” said Fleishman of Tiny Town. “I learned a long time ago you can’t stop Christmas. It’s the time of year to celebrate with family and friends and enjoy the things good in life. We’re all going to get through this one way or another.”

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Staff writer Michael Futch can be reached at [email protected] or 910-486-3529.

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