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Fearing empty shelves, Black Friday ‘early birds’ head to U.S. stores


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CHICAGO — With many major U.S. retailers opening their doors to shoppers at 5 a.m. on Friday, early risers ventured out, hoping to find gifts to tuck under the Christmas tree before products sell out.

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The day after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, known as Black Friday, officially kicks off the year-end shopping season. In most past years, retailers have hosted ‘doorbuster’ discounts of 50%-or-more-off everything from clothing and toys to TVs, prompting shoppers to line up for blocks outside stores and crowd into malls to scramble for deals.

Francisco Martinez, 22, a delivery driver was one of over 100 people standing outside a Walmart Supercenter in the Kilbourn Park neighbourhood of Chicago before 5 am in -7 degree Celsius weather.

“I want to get a 65-inch Element TV – it’s $350 off,” said Martinez, who was wearing three layers of clothing. “I think I’m going to get it – it’s not as crowded as it used to be a few years ago.”

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While people waited in line, a Walmart worker handed out coupons for items like Apple AirPods, Apple watches and Gateway laptops. Walmart store worker Daniella Rangel, 19, came into work at 2 am to restock shelves and prepare for the morning rush.

But as online shopping has taken off, Black Friday crowds have dwindled, particularly in 2020 when people were still unvaccinated and worried about COVID-19.

Regardless, early queues were expected, with some shoppers worried that an ongoing supply chain logjam might prevent retailers from stocking sought-after items such as Hoverboard scooters, Nerf toys, Oculus Quest 2 headsets, AirPods Pro earbuds, and MacBook Air laptops.

Walmart, Best Buy and Target this year did not require shoppers who have been vaccinated to wear masks, but some indoor malls kept existing mask requirements.

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A report by consumer research platform Attest showed about two-thirds of 1,000 people surveyed on Nov. 13 were comfortable shopping in-person despite the ongoing pandemic.

“People are looking to get back to normal,” said Rod Sides, Deloitte’s U.S. retail leader. “The early online birds, and the birds that went into the store, may get the worm.”

A Deloitte survey showed people had already spent 80%-85% of their budgets before Black Friday. Still, the consultancy said two-fifths of respondents would line up at stores on Black Friday between midnight and 6 a.m.

At 6 a.m., a Best Buy in Chicago’s Bucktown neighbourhood was far less busy.

“It’s a bit quiet now but give it two-to-three hours and it’s going to be going crazy,” said Darien Dorch, 20, who also plans to go with his friends to Walmart, Target and GameStop.

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As stores welcome holiday shoppers, some may be reevaluating their security measures after high-end stores in some U.S. cities were targeted by brazen “smash-and-grab” robberies, where masked thieves stuff bags full of merchandise.

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ONLINE VS STANDING IN LINE

U.S. consumers enter the holiday season flush with spending power thanks to a still-hefty pile of savings from multiple rounds of government pandemic relief, and now double-digit year-over-year wage increases as businesses compete for scarce workers.

Data on Wednesday showed consumer spending grew by a greater-than-expected 1.3% in October. Spending on big-ticket items like automobiles lifted the headline figure, but the data also showed broad-based spending increases on services like travel.

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Online and brick-and-mortar retailing come together just outside the store. This Black Friday, retailers including Target, Macy’s and Walmart allocated more floor space and workers to online pick-up stations and curbside parking.

Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer, hired 150,000 workers for the holidays, many for these jobs. On Walmart’s website, a banner lets people reserve times to pickup items from stores or get items delivered.

Target added more than 18,000 “drive-up” parking spaces, more than doubling spots versus last year.

Curbside pickup increased 92% in November compared to 2019, according to Adobe Digital Economy Index, which showed 23% of online orders on Nov 23 were for curbside pickup.

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As of Nov 23, out-of-stocks messages had already risen 8% versus the prior week, according to Adobe. Through most of November, out-of-stocks were up 261% versus 2019.

“There are already reported shortages of toys in a number of big sellers in North America and I think you’ll see similar shortages in electronics,” said Andy Halliwell, senior director of retail at consultancy Publicis Sapient.

Elver Gomez, 21, made his way to Best Buy at 6 a.m. only to find the Apple and Microsoft Surface Pro laptops he wanted for school were out of stock.

“Discounts aren’t as intriguing … it seems like this year it’s either out of stock or isn’t that great of a price,” said Gomez, a student, who now hopes to find a couple of gifts before going home.

“I’m not going to get what I wanted.”

Electronics – in short supply due to a global chip shortage – had the highest out-of-stock levels, followed by personal care, home and garden, housekeeping and baby and toddler products, according to Adobe.

“Instead of seeing eight piled-high boxes of TVs, you might see three or four stacks of TVs. You might see fewer bicycles on the racks,” NPD analyst Marshal Cohen said.

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