Virus keeps Black Friday crowds thin, shoppers shift online

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Black Friday shoppers wear face masks as the leave Saks Fifth Avenue flagships store empty handed, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

NEW YORK – The raging coronavirus pandemic kept crowds thin at malls and stores across the country on Black Friday, but a surge in online shopping offered a beacon of hope for struggling retailers after months of slumping sales and businesses toppling into bankruptcy.

In normal times, Black Friday is the busiest shopping day of the year, drawing millions of people eager to get started on their holiday spending.

But these are not normal times: A spike in coronavirus cases is threatening the economy's fitful recovery from the sudden plunge in the spring. Crowds at stores were dramatically diminished as shoppers shifted online.

Game consoles, cookware, robotic vacuum cleaners, slippers and pajamas were popular among shoppers preparing to spend a lot of time indoors this winter. Many were still eager to get into the holiday spirit and delight their loved ones after a tough year.

Eric Kelly, a boxing gym owner, camped outside a store on Black Friday for the first time in his life, trying to score a PlayStation 5 for his 13-year-old twin sons as a reward for persevering through remote learning during the pandemic.

“They’ve been away from their friends,” said Kelly, who failed to get the console at a GameStop in New York City’s Union Square but said he would keep trying online. “They’ve done everything they had to do in school and outside of school, so I have to award them for being exceptional kids.”

Before Black Friday, GameStop teased that it would have a limited supply of the new $500 PlayStation 5 game console for sale only at its stores, in contrast to other retailers that sold it only online.

Kelly said “people were on top of each other” in the line. At a Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, New Jersey, police monitored a crowd outside a GameStop, but few people kept their distance.