Behind Black Friday’s crowds lie stories of consumers squeezed by inflation

Shoppers took to stores across the world on a Black Friday that appeared subdued compared with prior years, looking for discounted electronics, clothing, and household goods in the kickoff to the holiday shopping season crucial to big retailers.

Brokerage TD Cowen lowered its U.S. holiday spending estimate to 2% to 3% growth, from 4% to 5%, as it forecast flat Black Friday traffic. Discounts in October and November removed the excitement and urgency of Black Friday.

"People have already got what they want," said David Klink, senior analyst at Huntington Private Bank, which owns shares of Walmart and Target. "There are only so many big-screen TVs and Alexa [Amazon voice assistants] you can buy."

With many consumers squeezed by persistent inflation and high-interest rates, U.S. holiday spending is expected to rise at the slowest pace in five years. Most major retailers slashed their seasonal hiring. Retailers will likely continue to discount throughout the season to avoid inventory glutes at yearend.

Caution from shoppers -- coupled with a strong quarterly performance from discount retailers like Target (TGT.N) and Ross Stores (ROST.O) -- show lingering concern over inflation and a higher cost of living even as fears of a recession recede.

“People are more value conscious,” said Barbara Kahn, a professor at The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania. “People are spending, but they’re spending more conservatively.”

A record 130.7 million people are expected to shop in stores and online in the U.S. on Black Friday this year, the National Retail Federation estimates. But at 6 a.m. on Friday at a Walmart in New Milford, Connecticut, the parking lot was only half full.

"It's a lot quieter this year, a lot quieter," said shopper Theresa Forsberg, who visits the same five stores with her family at dawn every Black Friday. She was at a nearby Kohl's (KSS.N) store at 5 a.m.

In Paramus, New Jersey, crowds at the Garden State Plaza mall were thinner than in prior years, according to Michael Brown, a partner at consulting firm Kearney, who has checked shopping activity for the past 35 years.

"It wasn't the good, old-fashioned kick-the-doors-down-type" shopping event this year, he said. Mallgoers "were carrying a bag or two, not the armfuls that you would see in pre-pandemic years. They are not blowing the budget today."

Area chart with data from Insider Intelligence shows retail e-commerce sales in the U.S. from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday in 2017 to 2023, with 2023 as forecast.
Area chart with data from Insider Intelligence shows retail e-commerce sales in the U.S. from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday in 2017 to 2023, with 2023 as forecast.

U.S. shoppers plan to spend an average of $875 on holiday purchases - $42 more than last year - with clothing, gift cards, and toys at the top of most shopping lists, according to a survey of 8,424 adults conducted in early November by the National Retail Federation.

The Black Friday tradition began in the U.S. but has gone global, as well as moving online. The rise of online shopping has reduced the importance of Black Friday as a single-day event.

Shoppers spent an estimated $7.3 billion online through 6:30 p.m. Eastern on Black Friday, a 7.4% increase compared with last year, data from Adobe Analytics showed. On Thanksgiving day, they shelled out $5.6  billion online, Adobe said.

"I think people are going to still spend on travel and leisure activities that might be online and not necessarily in stores," said Jimmy Lee, CEO of The Wealth Consulting Group, which holds Amazon shares.

"The excitement of waiting in lines on Black Friday - there's not as much of that anymore. A lot of people .... would rather just sit at home and look for deals."

Waffle chart with survey data from the National Retail Federation shows the rising number of returns in US retail sales from 2018 to 2022.
Waffle chart with survey data from the National Retail Federation shows the rising number of returns in US retail sales from 2018 to 2022.


Retailers from Macy's <M.N> to Amazon (AMZN.O) launched deals as early as October and are likely to offer additional discounts closer to Christmas, Macy's CEO Jeff Gennette told investors this month.

Whether those deals will attract inflation-weary consumers is the biggest worry for retailers.

Best Buy (BBY.N) is offering between $100 and $1,600 off electronics including laptops, flat-screen TVs and KitchenAid mixers after telling investors this week that shoppers are holding off on big-ticket purchases.

A downturn in luxury spending prompted department stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Nordstrom (JWN.N), to offer steep discounts on items such as Balenciaga shoes and Oscar de la Renta earrings.

On Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, shoppers were unimpressed. Carlos Araejo-Ruiz, 17, hoped for a deal on designer belts at Nordstrom.

“There was an enthusiastic factor when you’re looking forward to jaw-dropping deals. It’s not the equivalent to years before,” he said.

Paul Aheren, 69, who drove from Indianapolis, said he remembered when luxury department stores had markdowns of up to 70%.

“At Saks,' if you came in from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., they had a bunch of stuff reduced. You don’t see any of that anymore,” he said. “What they are doing now is clearing the stock they couldn’t sell. I don’t consider that a bargain.”


Black Friday came at the start of a four-day Israel-Hamas truce. Protesters held sporadic “shut it down for Palestine” demonstrations across the United States.

Demonstrators staged a die-in at a Dallas mall; in Raleigh, protesters briefly shut down the Crabtree Valley Mall, according to online videos; and in Boston, dozens protested outside a Puma shop, a brand that protesters say is the main sponsor of the Israel Football Association.

Puma said it does not support any political direction, political parties, or governments.

East Hollywood resident Diane Roque has been impacted by months of high inflation, prompting her to make cost-saving decisions such as canceling her family’s cable subscription and emphasizing home cooking. With the holidays approaching, Roque has adjusted her approach to holiday shopping in response to the elevated prices. Despite Black Friday shopping being a cherished tradition for her family, she has set a strict budget for her daughters and emphasized the need to differentiate between wants and needs, as well as making thoughtful spending choices.

Although Black Friday mall crowds have diminished over the years due to the rise of e-commerce and early holiday promotions, the impact of inflation drove throngs of bargain-hungry shoppers to retailers, notably at budget-friendly locations like outlet malls and discount stores. Walmart in Burbank saw around 70 eager shoppers in line before its 6 a.m. opening, with the slow ushering in of customers causing frustration among those waiting to snag the available specials.  

A line of people waiting at a sign reading "Checkout" at a store as a girl curls up in one family's cart for a rest.
Jayleen Tavico, 9, naps as her family waits to pay for their items Friday at the Glendale Galleria JCPenney.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

By 9 a.m., the Citadel Outlets in Commerce were jam-packed. Some pushed strollers that doubled as shopping carts, while others lugged suitcases.

Long Beach resident Rosa Acevedo, 33, limited herself to spending $300 on gifts this year and came in under budget with the help of discounts at the Disney and Timberland stores. Inflation has hit her family hard, she said.

Her Black Friday was a success, “as long as we’re shopping for him,” Acevedo said, pointing to her 7-year-old son.

Despite evidence showing that shoppers recently have pulled back, data from consumer surveys indicate that overall spending is expected to hit unprecedented levels this holiday season.

U.S. consumers, buoyed by a robust labor market, have demonstrated unexpected resilience even as they contend with stubborn inflation.

But to pull off this spending feat, a significant number of shoppers are expected to rely on savings, credit cards, or buy-now-pay-later plans to fund their holiday spending this year.

“They might buy fewer gifts because things are more expensive, but we expect spending to be up,” said George Noceti, a wealth advisor at Morgan Stanley.

The National Retail Federation predicted that in-person and online holiday spending would be up 3% to 4% from last year, reaching record levels between $957.3 billion and $966.6 billion. The increase in spending is predicted to slow from last year’s 5.4% boost, according to the trade group’s data.

On Thanksgiving Day, with most stores closed, shoppers turned to their computers, spending $5.6 billion online Thursday, up 5.5% from last year and nearly twice as much as the $2.87 billion that was spent on the same day in 2017, according to the latest Adobe Analytics figures. Nearly 60% of purchases were made with a mobile device, an all-time high.

“Now it’s very online-focused, and we’re really looking to see the online velocity surge on the major days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday,” said Vivek Pandya, lead analyst at Adobe Digital Insights. In line with recent years, e-commerce sites were expected to be inundated on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

A Deloitte holiday survey indicated that clothing, electronics, and toys would be some of the most popular categories for holiday gifts nationwide this year. But in Los Angeles, the top category this year is projected to be gift cards, which could be a sign of economic distress, said Rebecca Lohrey, a retail analyst at Deloitte.

Because shoppers pick the exact amount they’re spending, “it definitely looks like a sign to us that people are trying to stay within budget,” Lohrey said.

Black Friday may not be the bellwether of the holiday shopping season that it once was, but overall retail sales during the season remain an important gauge of consumer health and a key source of retailer profits. Consumer spending on goods and services accounts for nearly 70% of the nation’s economic activity.

There has been a shift in consumer behavior as holiday sales now roll out in
the weeks before Black Friday. MainPlace Mall in Santa Ana has not returned to the hustle and bustle it had on Black Fridays before the pandemic, said Cory Sams, the mall’s general manager.

“They’re stretching out the deals to hit earlier than just the day of Black Friday, so sales the week prior were even higher than the week of Thanksgiving last year,” he said. “It’s a different model of holiday sales now.”

A child standing next to store clothing racks looks on as a woman holding an item on a hanger checks her phone
A woman gets a jump on Black Friday shopping Thanksgiving evening at the Citadel Outlets in the City of Commerce.
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Given the precarious situation of many consumers, retailers know they demand major discounts — and will hold out for the best deals. But those who rely on savings, credit cards, and other pay-later programs to finance their holiday purchases carry the risk of added interest and other costs.

Many retailers offer buy-now-pay-later plans. And buy-now-pay-later apps — backed by companies including Afterpay, Klarna, and Affirm — often let users split their final bill into four interest-free payments, an attractive alternative to credit cards, which carry an average interest rate of more than 19%, according to November data from Bankrate.

“The consumer is bargain hunting this year,” said Mrin Nayak, a managing director and partner leading holiday research at Boston Consulting Group. “They are looking for deals to counter inflation, and they are looking to make sure that they’re shopping at places that give them really differential value versus the rest of the year.”

The latest Adobe Analytics figures show that in the days leading up to Black Friday, retailers were already marking down products in popular categories: Electronics, appliances, toys, and apparel were discounted on average more than 20%.

“I think because we’re seeing this level of discounting that we’re profiling across these categories, it’s helping keep consumers incentivized to spend this season,” Pandya said. “But we’re expecting the discounts to get bigger and better on these major days between Black Friday and Cyber Monday.”

Some shoppers at bricks-and-mortar stores were disappointed with the lack of good deals on Friday. Standing outside the Garage Clothing store at the Glendale Galleria with a PacSun bag at his feet, Brandon Kim, 24, of Koreatown was ready to call it a day.

Kim had anticipated buying more at the mall, but he changed plans upon arriving. “The deals are the same as they are every year,” he said. “All the items that you want aren’t usually on sale.”

On top of that, he doesn’t like large crowds. “I don’t really want to be here right now,” he said.

Consumers are being selective, with many options at their fingertips. Albert Reynolds, 61, was running nonholiday errands and stopped by the Best Buy on Pico Boulevard in the Sawtelle neighborhood around 7 a.m. to check another task off of his list: buying a pair of Sony wired earbuds.

Reynolds said he’s always hunting for the best deals, checking prices and reviews online before purchasing a product. On previous Black Fridays, he bought a Samsung tablet and a microwave, he said. But this year, he left the store empty-handed just 10 minutes after arriving.

Best Buy didn’t stock the exact model of earbuds he wanted. He’ll likely buy them from Amazon, he said.

Even though his shopping trip wasn’t fruitful, Reynolds still respects the institution of Black Friday.

“I like the idea that if you really wanted something, you could get it at a great price, but there’s nothing I’ve really been after so much,” he said. These days, he added, Black Friday also seems “less focused on just this one day.”

High-end malls were also busy on Black Friday, but customers were looking for holiday fun more than doorbuster sales.

South Coast Plaza this year saw the biggest Black Friday crowds since the pandemic, said Debra Gunn Downing, the mall’s executive director for marketing.

“Many people come to South Coast Plaza after Thanksgiving, whether they plan to shop or not,” Downing said. “It’s more than a shopping experience. It’s the ambiance.”

Short lines formed in front of luxury boutiques like Chanel, Dior, and Hermès at South Coast on Friday afternoon, although the stores weren’t having holiday sales.

Gaetano Laplaca, 65, came to the mall not for Black Friday deals, but to spend his $350 credit at Hermès.

“I just came to use my credit here, and [on] the chance that there was some sale going on,” he said.

At Westfield Century City in L.A.’s Westside, shoppers perused the stores against a backdrop of Christmas tunes as fake snow rained down. Many had armfuls of bags or carried coffee cups or smoothie bowls.

Lily Rodriguez, 44, has been trying to cut back on spending but said it’s a challenge in the current economic climate.

“Everything’s a lot more expensive this season, so maybe [I’ll spend] more today” than planned, she said. So far, Rodriguez had bought a robe, which was 25% off, and a Chanel cologne, which was 15% off, from Bloomingdale’s for her boyfriend.

Although retail sales and consumer confidence fell in October, people feel are feeling differently about the holidays.

“We’re seeing disproportionately more optimism as it relates to holiday shopping versus regular day-to-day and regular discretionary shopping,” said Boston Consulting Group’s Nayak.

Some who were out on Friday were less interested in deals than in participating in what has become a cherished ritual.

Running on little sleep, Jade Mendez, 20, and Miguel Reyes, 18, waited outside Walmart in Burbank in the early morning, continuing a family tradition.

The siblings were first in line at 5 a.m., as they had been in years past, huddled together, shivering in their pajamas. They chose the Burbank Walmart because of its proximity to other shops, including Sephora, Target, and Best Buy, which they were planning to hit after Walmart.

This year, they brought along their younger sister Misell Reyes, 16, hoping to get her a reasonably priced pair of Apple AirPods.

Although Black Friday no longer features the deeply discounted big-ticket items that once drew the family, these annual shopping excursions have become a custom for the siblings, and they still show up year after year.

“In the past, people were actually saving money from large discounts on TVs and electronics,” Mendez said. “That’s what I wanted to see, but you’re not going to see that anywhere anymore.”

Miguel Reyes agreed. He said he didn’t anticipate Black Friday shopping for the best deals, but to make memories.

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