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Black Friday Night-Before Crowds Are Scarce This Year Amid Pandemic, But Online Sales Are Robust

CHICAGO (CBS) -- It was a holiday tradition for some – after the turkey comes the camp-out, with people waiting in lines for shopping deals even before Thanksgiving is over.

COVID-19, however, is changing how we buy things on the eve of Black Friday.

As CBS 2's Jeremy Ross reported, the Best Buy on Sheffield Avenue off Clybourn Avenue set up the typical railing used to corral shoppers who camp out ahead of time. But workers inside the Best Buy said due to COVID, they are not expecting the same kind of crowds.

The darkness cloaking Thanksgiving evening is normally followed by the hustle and bustle of shoppers flexing their wallets and their folding chairs – setting up to get first crack at holiday deals.

This year, it's not.

"It's the eeriest it's ever been," said Bob Erlenbaugh.

Erlenbaugh spent the evening in front of a computer at home rather than in line anywhere.

"We just Zoomed with our family, and we were all talking about next year where it's going to be the biggest bash we've ever had," he said.

Meanwhile, this year, Rosemont's Fashion Outlet is empty. And in years past, people lined up in bunches for Black Friday booze from Binny's Beverage Depot, and there was never a shortage of lengthy lines and appetites for alcohol.

Now, the waiting is done online. The store and the front lot linger soberingly different.

"I know a lot of people are out of work and it will be difficult for a lot of families, I think," said Kristin Martin.

Despite the pandemic and recession, the National Retail Federation has forecast holiday sales will increase about 4 percent compared to last year – including online sales, which are up about 25 percent.

Among the reasons are that many have not been able to spend money on things like vacations due to COVID travel restrictions.

"Some are not going out to restaurants all year or taking trips," Erlenbaugh said. "They'll kind of treat themselves and treat and their family and spend a little more this year."

"You can spend more on giving if you're not going to be traveling," Martin said.

And while the health hazards of crowding outside a store will likely curb curbside camping, Erlenbaugh said the virus won't completely kill off the Black Friday tradition.

"Once we have a vaccine out there, I think people will be excited to go back again," he said.

So will there still be some people heading to the big-box stores to wait early on Friday morning? The expectation is that indeed there will.

But many are opting to buy online rather than waiting in a physical line. The NRF's latest research shows 42 percent of customers started their holiday shopping earlier than usual this year.

NRF's "New Holiday Traditions" campaign has urged consumers to shop safe and shop early amidst the pandemic, and 59 percent had begun to do so by early November – up from 49 percent at that point a decade ago.

Other holiday information is available at the NRF's Winter Holidays web page.

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