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The mall where Black Friday refuses to die

By Alicia Wallace, CNN Business. Photographs by Jamie Kelter Davis for CNN

The rise of e-commerce in recent years has taken its toll on in-person shopping, felling brick-and-mortar stores and once popular malls in the process.

As a result, Black Friday, the traditional first day of the Christmas shopping season and a day once known for door-busting deals and hordes of holiday shoppers, has lost some of its sheen.

But not here in Bloomington, Minnesota.

At 4:30 a.m. on Friday, hundreds of people waited in line at the main entrance of the Mall of America. The nation’s largest shopping and entertainment center — a 5.6-million-square-foot behemoth — would open its doors for Black Friday in 150 minutes.

Frigid temperatures be damned, these early birds and the tens of thousands more that would follow in the coming hours showed that the Black Friday spirit still reigns supreme in some places.

“The holidays are our version of the Super Bowl,” said Jill Renslow, the executive vice president of business development and marketing at Mall of America.

Black Friday serves as the kickoff of the holiday shopping season here, ever since mall officials decided seven years ago to close on Thanksgiving Day. At the time, “holiday creep” was becoming more pronounced with the emergence of “Gray Thursday,” when Black Friday-like deals and super-early opening hours landed on Thanksgiving Day.

This year’s holiday kickoff holds particular significance for the mall, which is not only celebrating its 30th anniversary but a return to a pre-pandemic level of operation.

“[Shoppers] want to specifically shop Black Friday, but they want to shop brick-and-mortar,” Renslow said. “They want to be able to have the immediacy to be able to bring that item home — especially if there’s something specific on their list.”

About 100,000 people per day come through the mall’s doors, but it’s typically double that on Black Friday. In some years — notably 2018 and 2019 — that traffic totaled close to 250,000.

Foot traffic has been better this year than in 2021 but still remains softer than pre-pandemic 2019, likely due to a drop in international travel, Renslow said.

Still, sales are up by 9% from last year and by 5% over 2019, she said. (Those numbers are not adjusted for inflation.)

However, plenty of uncertainty clouds the nation’s entire holiday season, said Jadrian Wooten, a collegiate associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Economics.

“This particular year is going to be a real test of the traditional Black Friday shopping mall experience,” he said.

Decades-high inflation and increasing economic uncertainty continue to weigh on consumers, making them even more deal-conscious and thrifty.

That’s certainly true for public school teacher Molly Timmerman. The mother of two said she’s planning to spend “much, much less” this year than in years past. “I’m pretty worried about the economy,” she said.

Timmerman plans to take a very deliberate and minimalistic approach to shopping this year, seeking out deals with her 13- and 10-year-old daughters. More importantly, though, she wants to enjoy her time with them at the shopping and entertainment center she first visited as an 8th grader the year it opened.

The 30th Black Friday at the ‘megamall’

The Mall of America was America’s brand-new “megamall,” hosting its first-ever Black Friday on November 27, 1992.

An estimated 170,000 people flocked to the three-story monolith that day, which dwarfed the site’s previous occupant, Metropolitan Stadium, where the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings played for 21 years. At 78 acres, the mall could hold 59 football fields.

Black Friday patrons came from far and wide that year, with many locals playing host to out-of-town guests curious to see the colossal commercial and entertainment center, according to newspaper reports at the time.

Those guests were greeted by an explosion of Christmas trimmings that took 30 people three weeks to install, including 1,300 mega-wreaths featuring Snoopy, the cartoon beagle from the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip. At the time, the premier attraction at the center of the mall was the Knott’s Camp Snoopy amusement park.

Retailers then were hopeful for a bountiful Black Friday, a return to better times as the nation recovered from the early 1990s recession. And while the foot traffic was ultimately below expectations, shoppers still scooped up plenty of deals and kept cash registers buzzing.

“By 11 a.m., we had already sold what we would in a normal weekend,” Abercrombie & Fitch store manager Hilary Werner told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune at the time.

Thirty years later, business was again brisk at Abercrombie & Fitch. Shoppers packed around the shelves and picked through the sweaters and pants, including what the store described as “’90s-style” ultra high-rise jeans.

Following an expansion in 2015, the mall is now even bigger, with an additional floor and an expanded footprint to more than 96 acres (or about 13 more football fields, for those keeping count). Nickelodeon Universe, the massive indoor amusement park and its sprawling bright orange and green roller coasters, has replaced the Peanuts gang at the mall’s core.

Decking the halls 30 years later are loads of larger-than-life snowflakes, ornaments and trees. Down the west corridor, strands of white lights drip from the ceiling.

With the backdrop of Christmas music playing from speakers (including multiple rounds of Mariah Carey’s 1994 mega-holiday hit, “All I Want for Christmas is You”), and amid the wafting aroma of Wetzel’s Pretzels and Cinnabon dough, shoppers loaded up with bags after hitting sales that ranged from 20% to 70% off.

The pre-dawn early birds

On Friday morning, deals served as the primary lure for many of the Mall of America early birds, some who flocked to the mall on Thanksgiving Day to be one of the first 200 shoppers to receive a gift card and first 4,000 shoppers to receive a scratch ticket offering mystery gifts and promotions.

First in line were the Rands family from Rochester, Minnesota. The family of six arrived at 4 p.m. on Thursday and camped out overnight with “tons of blankets,” they said.

Crystal Rands, 40, grew up in Mississippi going out to Black Fridays with her mom and has carried on the tradition with her family. Online shopping may be convenient, she said, but “I still like the rush and being around people.”

Her family has socked away money throughout the year so they and their four children could enjoy the experience

Newlyweds Alex and Sierra Weber drove five hours from Rockford, Illinois. While some families come prepared with elaborate battle plans for their power-shopping, the Webers just wanted to see what catches their eye.

“We find what we find, and if we don’t find anything, we eat food and enjoy the attractions,” said Alex Weber, 33.

Further down the line, Jordan Zabel, 28, and cousin, Mandi Schoultz, 31, popped out of their Eskimo QuickFish pop-up ice fishing shelter, where they played card games and watched “Wednesday” on Netflix.

Christmas this year will be a bit pared down from past holiday shopping seasons. “I’m definitely spending less on what I can,” Schoultz said.

Brooklyn Park resident Devon Shepherd, 18, bundled up and bouncing up and down to fight off the 28-degree air, let out a big smile when asked about his Black Friday plans.

The opportunity to get a gift card enticed him and his friend Esi Adamaley, also 18, to the early morning line, despite the temperature.

But while Christmas shopping may have been the impetus for their 1:45 a.m. arrival, by 5:45 a.m., Shepherd was even buzzier about the experience.

“Originally, it was going to just be Christmas shopping, but now it’s the experience,” he said. “I’m still going in there and shopping ’til I drop.”

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