The rise of e-commerce in recent years has taken a toll on in-person shopping, knocking down once-popular brick-and-mortar stores and malls in the process.
As a result, Black Friday, the traditional first day of the Christmas shopping season and a day once known for door-to-door deals and hordes of holiday shoppers, has lost some of its shine.
But not here in Bloomington, Minnesota.
At 4:30 a.m. Friday, hundreds of people lined up at the main entrance to the Mall of America. The country’s largest shopping and entertainment center – a 5.6 million square foot juggernaut – would open for Black Friday in 150 minutes.
To hell with the freezing temperatures, those early risers and the tens of thousands more that would follow in the hours to come showed that the spirit of Black Friday still reigns supreme in some places.
“The holidays are our version of the Super Bowl,” said Jill Renslow, executive vice president of business development and marketing at Mall of America.
Black Friday here marks the start of the holiday shopping season, since mall officials decided seven years ago to close on Thanksgiving Day. At the time, “holiday creep” was becoming more pronounced with the emergence of “Gray Thursday,” when Black Friday-like deals and super-early opening hours landed on Thanksgiving Day.
Kicking off this year’s holiday holds special significance for the mall, which not only celebrates its 30th anniversary, but also a return to a pre-pandemic level of operation.
“[Shoppers] want to buy Black Friday specifically, but they want to buy brick and mortar,” Renslow said. “They want to be able to have the immediacy to be able to take that item home, especially if there’s something specific on their list.”
About 100,000 people per day walk through the mall doors, but it’s usually double on Black Friday. In some years, including 2018 and 2019, that traffic totaled nearly 250,000.
Foot traffic has been better this year than in 2021, but still remains lower than before the 2019 pandemic, likely due to a drop in international travel, Renslow said.
Still, sales were up 9% from last year and 5% from 2019, she said. (These numbers are not adjusted for inflation.)
However, there are many uncertainties clouding the country’s entire holiday season, said Jadrian Wooten, associate professor in the economics department at Virginia Tech.
“This particular year is going to be a real test of the traditional Black Friday mall experience,” he said.
Decades-high inflation and growing economic uncertainty continue to weigh on consumers, making them even more business-minded and frugal.
That’s certainly true for public school teacher Molly Timmerman. The mother-of-two said she plans to spend “much, much less” this year than in years past. “I’m quite worried about the economy,” she said.
Timmerman plans to take a very deliberate and minimalist approach to shopping this year, scouting for deals with her 13- and 10-year-old daughters. More importantly, however, she wants to hang out with them at the shopping and entertainment center she first visited in 8th grade the year it opened.
The Mall of America was America’s newest “megamall”, hosting its very first Black Friday on November 27, 1992.
About 170,000 people flocked to the three-story monolith that day, which dwarfed the site’s former occupant, Metropolitan Stadium, where the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings played for 21 years. At 78 acres, the mall could hold 59 football fields.
Black Friday shoppers came from far and wide that year, with many locals hosting out-of-town guests curious to see the colossal shopping and entertainment center, according to news reports from the time.
Those guests were greeted with an explosion of Christmas toppings that took 30 people three weeks to install, including 1,300 mega wreaths featuring Snoopy, the beagle from the “Peanuts” comic. At the time, the main attraction in the center of the mall was Knott’s Camp Snoopy amusement park.
Retailers then hoped for a bountiful Black Friday, a return to better times as the country recovered from the recession of the early 1990s. And although foot traffic was ultimately below expectations, shoppers still concluded numerous offers and kept the cash registers buzzing.
“By 11 a.m., we had already sold out what we would do on a normal weekend,” Hilary Werner, Abercrombie & Fitch store manager, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune at the time.
Thirty years later, business is booming again at Abercrombie & Fitch. Shoppers packed into shelves and picked out sweaters and pants, including what the store described as “90s-style” ultra-high-rise jeans.
After an expansion in 2015, the mall is now even bigger, with an extra floor and an expanded footprint of over 96 acres (or about 13 more football fields, for those counting). Nickelodeon Universe, the huge indoor amusement park and its huge bright orange and green roller coasters, has replaced the Peanuts gang in the heart of the mall.
30 years later, the halls are covered in snowflakes, ornaments and larger than life trees. In the west corridor, strands of white lights drip from the ceiling.
Against the backdrop of Christmas music blasting through the speakers (including several sets of Mariah Carey’s 1994 megahit, “All I Want for Christmas is You”), and amidst the floating aroma of pretzels of Wetzel and Cinnamon Roll, shoppers loaded with bags after hitting sales ranging from 20% to 70% off.
Friday morning deals were the main lure for many Mall of America early risers, some who flocked to the mall on Thanksgiving Day. be one of the first 200 shoppers to receive a gift card and the first 4,000 shoppers to receive a scratch off gift ticket offering mystery gifts and promotions.
On the front line is the Rands family of Rochester, Minnesota. The family of six arrived at 4 p.m. Thursday and camped overnight with “tons of blankets,” they said.
Crystal Rands, 40, grew up in Mississippi going to Black Fridays with her mom and carried on the tradition with her family. Shopping online can be convenient, she said, but “I still like the rush and being around people.”
His family raised money throughout the year for them and their four children to enjoy the experience.
Newlyweds Alex and Sierra Weber drove five hours from Rockford, Illinois. While some families come prepared with battle plans for their power buys, the Webers just wanted to see what caught their eye.
“We find what we find, and if we don’t find anything, we eat and enjoy the rides,” said Alex Weber, 33.
Further down the line, Jordan Zabel, 28, and his cousin, Mandi Schoultz, 31, emerged from their Eskimo QuickFish ice fishing shelter, where they played card games and watched “Wednesday” on Netflix .
Christmas this year will be a bit pared down from the holiday shopping seasons past. “I’m definitely spending less on what I can afford,” Schoultz said.
Brooklyn Park resident Devon Shepherd, 18, bundled up and bouncing to fight the 28-degree air, let out a big smile when asked about his plans for Black Friday.
The opportunity to get a gift card prompted him and his friend Esi Adamaley, also 18, to queue early in the morning, despite the weather.
But while Christmas shopping may have been the cause of when they arrived at 1:45 a.m., at 5:45 a.m. Shepherd was even more enthusiastic about the experience.
“Originally it was just Christmas shopping, but now it’s the experience,” he said. “I always go there and shop until I drop.”
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