Seattle resident Didi Northup smiled as she took a minute to rest in the atrium of The Commons at Federal Way on Black Friday morning, a valance of shopping bags hanging from one hand and a pair of bouncy grandkids clutching the other.
“It’s a little less crowded than I remember,” said Northup, a devotee of Black Fridays in Federal Way.
“This is where their mom lives,” she added, nodding to the kids. “We always go to this mall every year, and it seems like there’s a smaller crowd this year. It’s always busy, but just not as crazy, you know?”
And while that may be good for a grandmother endlessly wrangling two boisterous little ones around a mall, it’s not necessarily great news for the shopping centers themselves.
Indeed, a recent report from the National Retail Federation estimated that retail sales between Thanksgiving and the following Sunday dropped to $50.9 billion, down 11 percent compared to the same period last year. The group cited, among other things, the continued growth of online shopping and an improving economy that lowered consumers’ reliance on deep discounts as reasons for the Black Friday decline.
You may, though, want to hold off on declaring the demise of the post-Thanksgiving shopping rush — at least locally. Malls in the South Sound, from South King County to Olympia, reported solid returns and good retail feedback over the first official weekend of the holiday season, and forecasts are optimistic for the remaining weeks leading up to Christmas.
“Black Friday weekend shopper traffic at Tacoma Mall shows that mall shopping was alive and well,” said Sarah Bonds, director of marketing and business development at Tacoma Mall. “This year more than ever, it was a social experience and it’s evolving. Many shoppers were lined up at stores well before last year’s openings, and many shared that they were thrilled stores opened earlier.”
Thanksgiving night openings were commonplace this year at national retailers in the South Sound, with stores like Nordstrom, GameStop, Target and Macy’s opening at midnight or 11 p.m. to accommodate early bird — or late night, depending on how you look at it — shoppers.
The Outlet Collection Seattle in Auburn opened at 10 p.m. on Thursday to a strong shopper reception, said Chantelle Herburger, the shopping center’s marketing director.
“Thursday was great,” she said. “It’s a little bit different shopper base that you see on Thursday. You see families, but also groups of teenage friends coming in and doing their shopping. And this year, we noticed a bit of a different type of shopper mentality that early, too. In past years, we saw Black Friday shoppers doing big holiday shopping for their families. This year, it seemed like people early on were doing more holiday shopping for themselves. It’s definitely changed the mentality of our shopper opening on Thursday.”
That change in mentality may be due in part to the growing role of technology in the holiday shopping blitz. With retailers bombarding consumers with deals through online alerts and social media, shrewd shoppers are pouncing early on personal items they may have been waiting on a discount for. The tech trend, according to Bonds, has been noticed at the Tacoma Mall and at other retail centers owned by its parent company, Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group.
“Simon understands that there is a broader trend on technology and see holiday shopping as a multi-channel experience … (We have noticed) the growing number of people using online resources to start thinking about what to shop for and then visit the brick-and-mortar retailers to do the actual shopping.”
“Consumers are being more productive and efficient with the way they shop,” added Jesse Tron, director of communications and media relations at the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers, a 65,000-member trade association for malls and retail centers.
“It’s one of the big things we’re seeing with the advent of new technologies. At the beginning of the recession, Best Buy was very concerned with this idea of ‘showrooming’ (in which shoppers examine merchandise in stores but make their final purchase online). Well, we’ve actually seen that the inverse – called ‘webrooming’ — is more true. What people are doing is doing all of their research ahead of time before they even get to the shopping centers, so they know where they’re going. They know the one or two retailers where they’re going to go have their final touchpoint with the product — feeling it, trying it on, interacting with it — and they buy it in the store. And some of them are going earlier to do that, because of the earlier promotions they’re finding out about on social media.”
The earlier open times for many malls and retailers may also account for Northup’s perception of thinner Black Friday crowds.
“Opening up Thursday really impacted how Friday ran,” Herburger said. “Instead of having an earlier shopper that came, let’s say, at 6 a.m., that shopper came at noon. From noon to 6 (p.m.), you could see the mall fill up like a typical Black Friday, with that high traffic. It was later in the day compared to previous years.”
Herburger said that the Outlet Collection, which compiles its own foot traffic reports, saw a few patterns within its data and retailer feedback.
“The funny thing is that if you’re comparing to same times last year, some retailers were a little bit up and others were flat,” she said, correlating the hour-to-hour decrease to the extra open hours on Thursday. “But when you look at the overall numbers from Thursday to Sunday, overall traffic and sales were up. When you look at the bigger picture, it was a great weekend.”
Herburger’s figures are backed up by anecdotal observations by associates at area department stores and chains.
“We opened at midnight,” said a South Sound Macy’s employee who declined to be identified. “There wasn’t as much of a rush, maybe, like at any one time, but it was consistent. Lots of people.”
Long term, the continued extension of the Black Friday-centered promotions nationally project to kick off the holiday shopping season earlier and re-write industry metrics.
“From the retailers’ standpoint, there’s probably going to be a de-emphasis on the one day (Black Friday), considering how promotional they were in the period leading up to Black Friday,” said Jesse Tron, director of communications and media relations at the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers, a 65,000-member trade association for malls and retail centers.
“Even if Black Friday itself was down, I would bet that the days prior to it and the days just after it were probably up … I think, in total, the sales volume will probably be there and be on par with the nice steady growth that we’re expecting for the season as a whole.
“I think what we’re seeing may be the transition into not just a Black Friday weekend, but more of a Black Friday week. I saw more promotional activity from retailers even going to the weekend before, stretching that far. When you stretch it out and dilute it over that big a period of time, you’re going to start to affect potentially the year-over-year metrics, because previously they were more narrowly focused. But I’d be willing to bet that as the economy continues to rebound, that de-emphasis on Black Friday will only help retailers’ big picture.”
Tron’s views are supported by ICSC data, which shows a 3 percent rise in sales year over year for the week including Thanksgiving and Black Friday — a figure that Tron called “a nice increase.”
That’s good news for area malls, many of which are forecasting upticks in their own holiday numbers.
“Traffic, we’re projecting to trend up about 6 percent compared to last year,” said Herburger. “That’s huge for us.
“Sales, we’re looking at trending up between 5 to 8 percent,” she added, citing year-to-date numbers from the mall’s retailers and the addition of eight new outlet stores to the Outlet Collection’s stable. Those uptick estimates are rosier than the ICSC’s national forecast, with the group’s economists expecting November and December sales to grow 4.1 percent, a faster pace than last year’s 3.1 percent rate.
Area malls are counting on demographic patterns to bolster holiday numbers, too.
“One in seven men will wait until December to start their shopping,” said Bonds. “The Saturday before Christmas – this year Dec. 20 – is typically dubbed the ‘busiest shopping day,’ as many take the last-minute approach to their holiday shopping, still buying gifts as stores turn out the lights. So we expect to see many customers shopping throughout the season, and even on Dec. 24.”
And more encouraging numbers from the ICSC: Its latest weekly consumer survey shows that more people have yet to start their holiday shopping this year compared to last year, 34 percent to 29 percent.
“December’s the highest volume month of the year,” Tron said. “It looks like there’s going to be a strong push and it’s going to be a good season.”