ITHACA, NY -- Every year, herds of early morning, post-Thanksgiving-Day shoppers flock to their local malls and, through the bustling crowd, seek out the latest Black Friday sales. But with a global pandemic that has forced limits on the number of people shopping in a certain area, the jam-packed stores typically associated with Black Friday may be less crowded this year.

Black Friday — often seen as imperative to some families’ day-after-Thanksgiving-day celebrations — is a holiday with a history not just rooted in retail excursions. The name relates to the 1869 financial crisis, when the gold market in the United States crashed. But the first recorded story connected to the holiday’s retail connotations comes from the theory that, after operating after a year of losses, or being “in the red,” stores would earn a profit on the holiday, or be “in the black,” as a result of shoppers spending so much money on discounted items.

These days, shoppers flood their local stores, hoping for a chance to score the latest, seemingly better-than-average deal. Coined “doorbusters,” these exclusive deals are available for only certain items and for a short period of time. In 2019, Americans spent more money on Black Friday shopping than any year before, both online and in-store, with electronics, appliances, sporting goods and clothing as the most-bought items.

Natalie Yesner, a senior at Ithaca College, said she has been participating in Black Friday shopping since she was in sixth grade. The endeavor has since become a tradition between herself and her mother. But this year, she said that they will not be going because her mother, who formerly had breast cancer, is at a heightened risk for COVID-19.

Instead, the two will opt for online browsing and engage with sales on Cyber Monday, the holiday that takes place the Monday after Black Friday.

“My mom and I agreed that what we would do this year is: we would have my laptop — and I have an extra laptop — and we would both wake up early and, instead of going and shopping, we’d be on some of the different [online] stores,” Yesner said. 

Yesner also said that in anticipation of Black Friday, she wants to go to her local mall’s American Eagle — her favorite store to shop from — to see what sizes fit for each item she wants to buy. 

“When I get there, I'll try it on in the dressing room, see what I like, what I don't like, take notes,” she said. “[That way] it’s not just browsing. It’s in case the site crashes or something so I know what styles [I like] instead of taking this guess and spending maybe more money.”

Andre Gardiner, owner of APG Enterprises in Ithaca and board member of Downtown Ithaca Alliance, said he does not participate frequently in in-person Black Friday shopping, though sometimes he will check Amazon the morning of and check for any crazy deals. This year, he will be home for Black Friday, but the pandemic is an even greater reason to avoid the malls, he said.

“I think the idea of lining up with a crowd of 50 to 100 people isn't particularly safe,” he said. “You're putting your health at risk to try to save a relatively small amount of money in the grand scheme of things.”

Gardiner said that he used to work in customer service at Amazon, where, on Black Friday, the e-commerce giant promises delivery before Christmas. As a result, Gardiner said he had to jump certain shipping hurdles to confirm the package’s arrival date, sometimes calling manufacturers to make one item and ship it to a customer. It keeps the buyers happy, he said, but at a price for workers.

“It's a lot of work for a lot of people so someone can get a set of dinner plates on Christmas versus the next day,” he said. “Employees are having a really rough time working a lot of hours, dealing with, quite frankly, mean customers. It's just not worth it.”

Yesner said she won’t just be shopping at big-name stores. Shopping at local boutiques is important to Yesner and her mother, especially during the pandemic, she said.

“I also try to, like, support local small businesses as well, just because a lot of them have been, like, struggling during this time,” she said. “For the small boutiques, or the small businesses online, I'm looking for potential gifts or stuff for my friends, for my boyfriend and even family members.”

Gardiner said shopping local in Ithaca can be a mixed bag because many of the shops — some of which sell Finger Lakes, Ithaca College or Cornell University merchandise — are geared toward tourists. He said he’d rather order from local restaurants that have been impacted more severely during the pandemic.

“I’m not going to buy an ‘I Love the Finger Lakes’ set of shot glasses to support the local retailer because I don't need that,” he said. “I will definitely be ordering takeout from local restaurants, which at the end of the day employ a lot more people than general retail.”

Lisa Swayze, general manager of Buffalo Street Books — a local bookshop in Ithaca — said via email that this year, the bookstore will have discounts on items Nov. 27–30 for “Give Big, Shop Small Weekend.” The Saturday after Black Friday is often referred to as Small Business Saturday, a campaign initially started by American Express in 2010 to raise awareness of and promote shopping at small businesses. The credit card company offered free, personalized ads for these local businesses. Customers nationwide spent approximately $5.5 million that year. 

She said that it’s imperative to shop local, especially during the holidays, to keep the local community diverse.

“Shopping locally helps keep your friends & neighbors employed and keeps interesting, carefully curated shopping in our community,” Swayze said. “At the bookstore we do between 20-30% of our sales for the entire year in the last two months, so if people choose to buy their books from big boxes instead during the holiday season, it could be the difference between us being here next year or not.”


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