Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season on the day after Thanksgiving, played out much more like a typical day for shoppers and retailers in Maine and elsewhere this year.

Retailers were betting that consumers would want to avoid big crowds during a time when an inadvertent slip of a face mask can turn a shopping trip into a “superspreader” event, and will instead spread out their shopping over the full monthlong lead-up to Christmas Day.

For the most part they were right, but there were some diehards for whom it isn’t the holiday season without pitching a tent on a cold, hard sidewalk to wait overnight for a store to open.

Beck Carrier and Anthony Valley were on such a mission that started Wednesday night.

Each intent on scoring a hard-to-find PlayStation 5 gaming console, the friends from Gorham set up camp outside video game seller Game Stop in South Portland at 7 p.m. Wednesday. They pitched a pop-up tent, parked a camper nearby and feasted on Thanksgiving dinner delivered by their families.

In a normal year, Carrier and Valley would be among hundreds of people waiting in lines outside stores in Maine on Black Friday. But, in case anyone needs reminding, this is not a normal year.

Beck Carrier, second from left in American flag sweatshirt, and Anthony Valley, third from left, both 18 and from Gorham, wait with a handful of their friends outside of Game Stop on Black Friday in South Portland. The teens had been outside waiting since Wednesday night in hopes of getting their hands on the only two new PlayStation 5s the store had in stock. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Gone were midnight openings and in-person-only doorbuster deals that some shoppers can’t pass up. As stores in South Portland and Scarborough opened around dawn on Friday, most parking lots in the Maine Mall area were nearly empty, and few stores had shoppers waiting to get in.

With major retailers starting sales before Thanksgiving to discourage the typical Black Friday crowds because of the coronavirus pandemic, there was less incentive for shoppers to head out in the wee hours to stand in line to score holiday deals. As shoppers avoid physical stores and focus more on online shopping, foot traffic at retail stores is expected to be down 22 percent to 25 percent during the six key weeks of the holiday season compared with the same period a year ago, according to a forecast from ShopperTrak.

The day after Thanksgiving has been losing its luster as the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season for the past several years, with more stores offering holiday discounts throughout the month.

Black Friday has remained the busiest day of the year, according to ShopperTrak, and is expected to hold that title again this year, but local retailers said the holiday shopping season will stretch out longer this year.

It already started before Thanksgiving, said Chris Brown, chief financial officer of Maine-based music, video and gaming retailer Bull Moose.

“It’s spread out,” Brown said, with many shoppers starting to tick items off their holiday gift lists before they began shopping for Thanksgiving dinner.

Brown said wholesalers have, by and large, ended the tradition of offering the biggest discounts to retailers who sell their products early Black Friday morning. He said the deals now extend out weeks, recognition that people aren’t going to want to gather in big groups and rush the store doors in the midst of a pandemic, but that they still want good holiday bargains.

Maine retailers have known that this season would be like none other and began planning ahead months ago to ensure strong sales and adapt to new rules, such as a state mandate that limits stores to no more than five people for every 1,000 square feet of indoor sales space. At Bull Moose, Brown said, the store had people sign up online for a space in a “virtual line” to get into the store and also beefed up services such as curbside pickup for orders.

“The intensity was fun” at previous Black Fridays, Brown said, but retailers have recognized that shoppers aren’t going to take a big risk on their health to get a few dollars off a CD or video game.

“It’s calmer,” Brown said. “This is a good thing.”

Brown said his industry has been adept at adapting all year long. Independent music stores used to have an event in April that would get shoppers lining up for special limited editions and other specials, he said, but that was canceled this year and replaced with smaller events at the end of summer and early fall.

Like most retailers, Brown said he expects the holiday season to work out about the same, with shoppers spending slightly more than in years past but spreading out those purchases. While there likely will be slightly slower sales on Black Friday and from last-minute shoppers, he said, sales should remain steadier over a longer period of time.

Mexicali Blues, which has five stores in Maine, has seen the same trend, said Peter Erskine, president and co-founder of the store, which sells jewelry, clothing and accessories.

He said the pandemic forced retailers to rethink how they market their products.

“For so many years, we’ve been programmed to do this,” he said of early morning Black Friday deals designed to entice shoppers before they could spend money elsewhere. “This year, there’s not the urgency.”

Sales on Friday were strong, Erskine said, but perhaps not as big as in recent years. However, sales leading up to the traditional kickoff to the holiday season were much stronger than normal.

“We expect things to level off” over the rest of the season, he said, and end up a little better than last year. Mexicali Blues has beefed up online shopping, he said, and it “has shot up way more than we anticipated, which is awesome.”

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, is predicting that shoppers will be looking for reasons to celebrate and that will translate into a solid increase in holiday sales. The trade group expects sales for the November and December period to increase by 3.6 percent to 5.2 percent over 2019, compared with a 4 percent increase the year before. Holiday sales have averaged annual gains of 3.5 percent over the past five years.

Curtis Picard, president and chief executive of the Retail Association of Maine, said he shares that prediction, but cautioned that no one can be sure of anything in 2020.

“This is probably the most uncertain I’ve ever been about a holiday season,” Picard said. “There are so many factors at play.”

Most Maine retailers expected the early start to the holiday season and believe sales will be steady in the lead-up to Christmas, he said.

“It’s definitely not the same Black Friday crowds you would normally see, but there are a good number of people out,” Picard said.

The move away from doorbuster deals has been a good thing, he said, because customers know that they can get a good deal at times other than a few hours in the early morning in the middle of a long holiday weekend.

Innovations such as curbside pickup, along with beefing up online sales, have been among the silver linings of pandemic-induced changes in retailing this year, Picard said, and will likely outlast COVID-19. He also said there was a trend in the last few years toward “experiential” gifts – buying someone a skydiving experience or scuba lessons, for instance – that are less likely to be given this year, with the money earmarked for those presents redirected instead toward gifts from traditional retailers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled shopping in crowded stores during the holidays a “higher risk” activity and says people should limit any in-person shopping, including at supermarkets. The health agency recommends shopping online, visiting outdoor markets or using curbside pickup.

Ron Burwood walks out with a PlayStation 5 just after 7 a.m. on Friday at Game Stop in Augusta. He had arrived at 7:30 a.m. Thursday and waited 23 1/2 hours to purchase the only two Sony PlayStation 5 consoles at the store. Isaac Wallace, right, was second in line and arrived around 2 p.m. Thursday and he got one of the 6 Xbox consoles. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Carrier and Valley, the 18-year-old friends from Gorham, typically go out to do some Black Friday shopping, but this year had to put in more effort to land the PS5 console, which retails for $500.

“This was extreme,” Carrier said. “We knew if we wanted the console, we had to go all in on it.”

By 6:45 a.m. Friday, a line of about 20 shoppers had gathered behind Carrier and Valley. All were wearing masks and standing 6 feet apart. When an employee came out to announce the store only had six consoles to sell and that they had been claimed by the first six people, the entire line dissipated within seconds.

Across the plaza at Target, a handful of people waited for the doors to open, but there were no crowds and plenty of open parking spots. Outside of movie, music and video game retailer Bull Moose, three people stood in line waiting for the store to open. At Walmart, a handful of shoppers wearing masks walked into the store with no wait.

There was a little activity at the Maine Mall shortly after it opened Friday. Shoppers – all wearing masks and many of them teenagers – walked through the nearly empty center court. Employees stood in front of nearly empty stores, waiting to count shoppers as they entered.

Mindy Pye and Steve Wescott of Freeport go shopping every Black Friday, usually for Christmas gifts. They started this year with a stop at Best Buy to pick up a couple of video games that were on sale. They also planned to stop at Walmart, Target and the Freeport outlets.

Pye said she missed going out for midnight openings, which she normally prefers because she can avoid crowds. While there were few people at the mall while she was there, Pye said she worried the later store opening times would lead to long lines and crowds later in the morning.

“Normally we’d be back home sleeping by now,” she said.

Another traditional part of the holiday season kicked off Friday at the Maine Mall, where visits with Santa now have pandemic precautions. This year, families need to make reservations and everyone has to wear a mask. The visits are contactless, so kids won’t be able to sit on Santa’s lap while they have their photo taken.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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