Black Friday shopping got off to a relatively slow start during predawn hours at The Maine Mall, but the crowds picked up in South Portland and at outlet stores in Freeport as the day wore on.

The diminishing sense of urgency to get out early on Black Friday is in line with experts’ predictions that this holiday shopping season will be good but not great for bricks-and-mortar retailers, with a significant portion of retail sales growth coming from online shopping.

Catherine Jackson said she heads to The Maine Mall in South Portland to shop every Black Friday, but that this year was a little different.

Shoppers pass a storefront at The Maine Mall on Friday. Staff photos by Derek Davis

When the Gorham resident arrived at the mall around 5 a.m., there were no big crowds like the ones she has experienced in years past.

“It’s a lot slower,” Jackson said as she waited for her daughter outside Bath and Body Works. “There used to be long lines, but now you get right in and right out, which is nice.”

National forecasts call for a solid – but not spectacular – holiday shopping season, which traditionally launches each year with Black Friday sales. This will be the shortest season since 2013 because Thanksgiving, which falls on the fourth Thursday in November, came on Nov. 28 – the latest possible date it could be. That means customers will have less time to shop and retailers will have less time to woo them.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, baked the shorter season into its 2019 holiday sales forecast. The group predicts that holiday sales will rise by 3.8 percent to 4.2 percent from a year earlier, an increase from the disappointing 2.1 percent annual sales growth in 2018, according to the Associated Press.

This year’s holiday forecast is for higher-than-average holiday sales growth, which has been 3.7 percent over the previous five years, according to AP.

Still, much of that growth is expected to come from online sales, rather than an increase in visits to physical stores.

Bain & Co., an international marketing firm, is forecasting retail sales growth of 3.8 percent over last year. But a major part of that growth will come from e-commerce and mail order business, which Bain predicts will increase by 15 percent over last year. In-store sales are expected to grow by only 1.6 percent, it said, although that still would be a bit better than the in-store sales increase of 1.3 percent from 2017 to 2018.

Jackson said her husband now does most of his shopping online, while she still prefers to shop in stores.

“I’ve got to go out and touch things,” she said.

Summer Kelleher, 18, of Gorham rests on a sign stand while waiting to greet customers at a shoe store in The Maine Mall on Friday. Kelleher, who has worked the past three years on Black Friday, said that the mall was very busy after opening at midnight. “I feel like it gets a little busier every year,” she said.

Jacqui Harris of Queens, New York, has the same approach to holiday shopping, but this year is her first Black Friday shopping experience.

Harris, who was in Maine visiting family, arrived at the mall at 3:30 a.m. and was surprised to find few lines and no big crowds.

“There’s probably not a crowd in Maine that could compare to New York,” she said.

More than a third of the mall’s stores opened at midnight, when long lines formed in front of Best Buy. By the time the rest of the stores opened at 6 a.m., Molly Wichenbach and her son David were running out of steam. They drove down to South Portland from Jefferson to shop – a special request from David, who was celebrating his 13th birthday.

“It hasn’t been that busy today. We haven’t seen any lines anywhere we’ve been,” Wichenbach said as she and her son lounged on a bench next to the mall’s indoor carousel, which was lit up but sat still waiting for riders.

By 8 a.m., business was picking up in most mall stores and the hallways were becoming crowded with groups of shoppers. The line at Starbucks twisted through the shop and out into the hallway. In the food court, shoppers who had already been at it for hours took a break to eat pizza and burgers from the few restaurants that opened early.

Sisters Doreen Shurtleff and Diane Paterson of Lewiston were more festive than the average Black Friday shoppers. Clad in in matching Mrs. Claus outfits, they headed out at midnight for a marathon shopping trip that would take them to South Portland, Freeport, Topsham and Augusta.

Shoppers walk through The Maine Mall early Friday. Some said they saw shorter lines and smaller crowds during the early morning hours.

They started dressing in matching outfits for Black Friday about five years ago after Paterson found a snowman costume she couldn’t pass up.

“We’ve had people say they want to dress up and come with us,” Paterson said.

They’ve also had people ask if they work in stores and if Santa is nearby. But for Shurtleff and Paterson, it’s just a fun way to liven up their holiday shopping tradition.

“We don’t stop until we drop,” Paterson said before she and her sister disappeared back into the crowd.

Downtown Freeport was another big Black Friday destination in southern Maine.

Shoppers walk through The Maine Mall on Friday. Business got off to a slow start, but picked up steam as the day wore on.

Amanda Singleton of Hampton, New Hampshire, was on her way to L.L. Bean, where she planned to look for deals on boots and jackets. She said it’s a holiday tradition on her brother’s side of the family to shop in Freeport on Black Friday.

Singleton said she had a few items waiting in her shopping cart on LLBean.com but was hoping to purchase them in the physical store if possible.

“If I can get it in the store, I’d rather do that,” she said. “But a lot of times, if they don’t have it in the store so you can try it on for size, then I’ll buy it online.”

The streets of Freeport were bustling around noon Friday, a brisk and windy day with plenty of sunshine. Drivers patrolled the area searching for parking spots while shoppers darted in and out of the many outlet stores.

Brunswick resident Vickie Crimmins was browsing through a rack of winter coats outside the Wilson’s Leather store in the Freeport Village Station outlet mall while waiting for her husband to find a parking space.

They had just come from The Maine Mall, which she said had gotten packed by late morning. Crimmins said she was planning to do a little shopping online this year, but that she and her husband have a tradition of going out shopping together on Black Friday.

“This is just kind of a fun thing that we do,” she said. “We’ve been doing it for about 18 years now.”

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