Black Friday 2020 in Denver: tourists, missing Santa and COVID-19 capacity limits

Downtown Denver resident Julie Jensen wasn’t expecting to do any shopping when she stepped out for coffee Friday. Then she saw the H&M store in the Denver Pavilions was having a 30% off everything Black Friday sale.

“I stopped in and got some gifts for family,” she said of the bag of sweaters on her arm.

Jensen’s broader holiday shopping plans speak to a season unlike any other with the novel coronavirus surging in Colorado and in many other places across the country. She expects to spend less, supporting local businesses when she can. She said she would not be doing any other Black Friday shopping, especially not in enclosed malls.

“I think you need to be sensitive to the circumstances. There is no reason to go over the top” this year, Jansen said. “I wouldn’t know what to expect from the mall today. It just sounds like a bad idea.”

Jensen isn’t alone. A Gallup survey earlier this month found that 28% of Americans planned to spend less on holiday gifts this year compared to last, the highest percentage since 2012. Still, Gallup found Americans’ average gift-buying budget was $852, close to the $846 reported in last year’s November survey.

For many of Colorado’s small retailers, it’s imperative to claim a chunk of that spending. Market data analysis firm Womply found that in 2019 the holiday season produced six of the 20 biggest revenue days of the year for local retail businesses. Black Friday was 14th. The Saturday before Christmas was No. 1.

Downtown businesses have faced their own set of challenges this year, as Brendan Prough, manager of the Where the Buffalo Roam gift shop on the 16th Street Mall, can attest. For one, Prough is expecting the holiday season to be slower because so many office workers in the surrounding area are now working from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Last-minute purchases for white elephant parties will now have to take place through the business’ fledging online ordering system if at all.

Where the Buffalo Roam’s windows have also been boarded up twice this year, once at the height of the racial justice protest this summer and again for a week and a half earlier this month around Election Day where more unrest was predicted but never materialized. Boarded windows tend to scare off the store’s bread-and-butter demographic: tourists.

A big holiday season is not critical to the store’s success as it is with some other businesses.

“The summer is our peak season for sure,” Prough said, noting the cheap flights into Denver the year have helped the store stay afloat in 2020. “It’s been better than expected to be honest. Sometimes we’re making last year’s numbers. The biggest thing we’re missing is the convention center. That’s the biggest thing by far.”

On Friday, Where the Buffalo Roam’s capacity was capped at 15 shoppers by new COVID-19 business restrictions. The only customers shopping in the store just after 11:30 a.m. was a family visiting from Chicago and Albuquerque, N.M.

Over on Larimer Square, the two staffers at the John Fluevog Shoes boutique took turns running a red velvet rope across the entrance whenever the store hit its five-shopper capacity. Assistant manager Brandon Giovannoni said Fluevog’s handmade shoes aren’t necessarily big holiday gifts — it’s hard to give shoes to someone who hasn’t tried them on — but gift cards are a big seller and the store was running a sale of up to 65% off Friday.

San Antonio residents Lorenzo and Julianna Morales tried on shoes Friday while their kids waited outside. The family flew into Denver for vacation, visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. The shoes Lorenzo ultimately ended up buying were for him. The family plans to do most of their gift shopping this year online and avoid big-box retailers in person.

“Targets and stuff like that, we’ll be staying away from them,” Lorenzo said.

It wasn’t a typical Black Friday at Southlands in Aurora, billed as the state’s largest outdoor shopping center.

“In general, certainly compared to the previous Black Fridays, where you had lines wrapping around buildings, we anticipated this would be a bit more subdued because of the pandemic and COVID restrictions,” said Darcy Rutzen, vice president of retail property management for M & J Wilkow, the center’s manager. “But we’ve been pleased to see that people have still been out, and there have still been lines.”

Southlands requires tenants and shoppers to wear masks, even outdoors.

There’s still outdoor skating at Southlands for those who make reservations, but the center canceled its annual holiday kickoff parade. Santa Claus will be a no-show this year after the Tri-County Health Department said he would have to do his work outside, Rutzen said.

When the pandemic passes, Rutzen said she expects to see some of the COVID-era practices remain, such as curbside shopping. But she believes brick and mortar will also stick around. The company backed up that belief this fall when it undertook a multi-million dollar construction project at Southlands, adding trees, new play areas, a climbing wall, seating and a fountain complete with lights and music.

“As much as people are shopping online, we really believe there’s no substitute for physical retail,” Rutzen said. “People want to come look at holiday decor, pick up a few things in a store. It’s not like every other year, but they’re still trying to find those little bits of normalcy.”

The Park Meadows mall, one of Colorado’s largest enclosed shopping centers, reported having a Black Friday morning similar to others it has had in the recent past. The mall has modest lines at its entrances when it opened at 7 a.m., general manager Pamela Kelly said. Its Dick’s Sporting Goods, Macy’s and J.C. Penney stores all opened at 5 a.m. and it’s possible most customers filtered in through them.

“It wasn’t your traditional Black Friday doorbuster,” Kelly said, noting many retailers have stopped emphasizing those types of deals in recent years and have started spreading out sales over a longer period of time. “But this year, it was comfortable, very steady, very active and energetic but not all crowded. People are out shopping but they are doing so cautiously.”

Park Meadows was using video equipment to monitor capacity. As of 2:20 Friday, the mall was at about 25% capacity, Kelly said, or half of the 50% cap mandated under Level Red health restrictions on the state’s color-coded dial.

For shoppers looking for a mellow shopping experience, at Park Meadows or anywhere, Kelly recommends keeping an eye on opening and closing times.

“I think that one of the secrets to success and safe shopping this year is to look at the store hours,” Kelly said. “That first hour and that last hour is usually when there is the least amount of intensity.”

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