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Baltimore-area consumers return to Black Friday shopping traditions at less frenzied pace than years past

Dwayne McCrae was among Baltimore-area shoppers Friday who revived the longtime tradition of heading out early to hunt for deals, after shying away from day-after-Thanksgiving crowds in 2020.

“I like to come out to get the experience,” said McCrae, a boxing trainer who got help loading an oversized TV into his SUV at Best Buy in Timonium. “It’s Black Friday only once a year, so why not?”

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McCrae, 41, who runs Boxing Addict’z in Odenton, said he wanted to see the Samsung product before buying it and didn’t want to wait for shipping.

“The deals are unbelievable,” McCrae said. “You’ve got to take advantage.”

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Dwayne McCrae, left, gets help loading a Samsung TV into his SUV Friday morning at Best Buy in Timonium.
Dwayne McCrae, left, gets help loading a Samsung TV into his SUV Friday morning at Best Buy in Timonium. (Lorraine Mirabella/The Baltimore Sun)

After a year marked by sheltering at home and shuttered stores, experts believe many consumers are pining for more “typical” activities during this year’s holiday shopping season.

With vaccination rates on the rise, stores are regaining shares of the market while online sales are still growing rapidly, but at more typical, pre-pandemic levels, according to retail consulting firm The NPD Group.

In a survey of consumers, the firm found that more than a third missed browsing retail store aisles, while 30% said they look forward to shopping in malls. Another 30% said they pine for the Black Friday shopping frenzy that has waned with more online spending.

Just under a fourth said they missed going out to see holiday displays, store windows and decorations, while 15% said in-person visits to Santa were important to them.

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“The consumer’s general hunger for the experience of shopping in-person, combined with their longing for missed traditions in 2020 will be evident over the holidays,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry advisor for NPD.

Catherine Robinson and her daughter, also Catherine Robinson, skipped their usual Black Friday shopping last year because of COVID-19. On Friday through, the Glen Burnie residents trolled past shops at The Mall in Columbia, where parking spaces and seats in the food court were filling up by mid-day.

“Now we both have our shots, and I actually have my booster, so we felt safer coming out,” the elder Robinson said. “You just can’t beat the sales. And there’s nothing like in-person shopping...I do online too. But it’s nice to get out, see people, touch and feel your products, try it on, see it in person. It’s just good to be out.”

Her 29-year-old daughter, an integrated arts teacher in Anne Arundel County, said she was looking for winter coats, Christmas knickknacks and clothing to refresh her wardrobe for the return to more in-person events.

Allison Crawford, who traveled from Madison, Mississippi to visit a daughter stationed at Fort George G. Meade, waited in a mall common area while one daughter shopped in Sephora and another went for refreshments.

“It’s good to see that people are getting back out and shopping and spending money,” Crawford said. “I’m just picking up a few gifts as I go.”

Mall traffic jumped well above a normal Friday and shoppers waited their turn to get into some stores that set their own capacity limits, such as H&M, Aerie and Pandora.

Employees at Pandora were letting in eight groups of customers at a time to be helped with jewelry selection, filling the space while others waited outside the store.

“I’ve been here Black Friday just about every year since we opened in 2009, and it seems so much more normal, so much more like 2018 or ‘19,” said Diane Meyer, the franchisee for Pandora jewelry at the mall.

“The whole vibe is different than last year,” she said. “People are relieved, the vaccination rates in Howard County are so high, and they’re happy to come to the mall.”

This year, customers at Edward Arthur Jewelers, a 50-year old business and one of the mall’s original tenants, have been doing more than just browsing, said owner Randy Brooks. Friday’s crowds were steady but not overwhelming, he said.

“The people have come to shop, to buy,” Brooks said. “It’s a different attitude altogether. Everybody who is walking in is coming in with a purpose. They’re buying, and they’re buying big, so it’s going to be a big Christmas season.”

Analysts, too, expect strong sales this holiday season, despite supply chain challenges and rising inflation. Bain & Company is forecasting 7% growth in U.S. retail sales for the season, which would be the second-highest growth rate in more than two decades.

Retail sales grew 11% year over year in October, the third straight month of double digit growth. Categories that suffered during the pandemic, such as apparel and electronics, are performing well thanks to pent-up consumer demand.

Friday’s sales — including online — were up 12.1% by morning, according to Mastercard SpendingPulse, which tracks all types of spending including cash and credit cards.

While Black Friday has a strong hold on Americans’ imaginations as a day of crazed shopping, it has lost stature over the last decade as stores opened on Thanksgiving and shopping shifted to Amazon and other online retailers. Stores diluted the day’s importance further by advertising Black Friday sales on more and more days.

The pandemic led many retailers to close stores on Thanksgiving Day and push discounts on their websites, starting as early as October.

But some Baltimore-area shoppers still equate Black Friday with a day for sales, especially on products they want to see in-person before buying.

Mak Jane, a water treatment project engineer from Timonium, picked up a laptop for his nephew, a security camera and an Alexa device at Best Buy.

“The deals are on,” Jane said. “40% and 30%. It’s the best time to buy some electronics.”

He said he first checks out offerings online and decides what he’s going to buy, but said, “I’d rather come to the store.”

After being disappointed for months by sold-out online sales of an upgraded Xbox console, Micah Johnson said he felt lucky to buy one of only four left at the Timonium electronics retailer on Friday.

“Some things you don’t know what they have in store, so it’s an opportunity to check to see what they actually have, and you don’t have to pay the shipping,” said Johnson, a high school senior from Fort Washington in Prince George’s County who was visiting Baltimore-area relatives for Thanksgiving.

While retailers continue to promote Black Friday, they have recognized that the pandemic may have forever changed shopping patterns. Health concerns last year shifted more people than ever to online, and many will continue to favor that option as the pandemic continues to ebb and flow.

“There is a growing sentiment [among retailers] to keep up appearances at the very least to get back to that normal experience,” said Chris Costello, senior director of marketing research for marketing technology firm Skai.

“But on the other hand we are still in a global pandemic,” said Costello, whose firm works with retailers on advertising. “What we learned from last year is a lot of people may have taken to online shopping for the first time last year and now see that as an efficient option, particularly folks who might be still concerned about health and safety.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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