Black Friday shoppers face supply backlogs, COVID concerns – Los Angeles Times

In the most consumptive nation on Earth, Black Friday in the U.S. has long been viewed as the ultimate looking glass: reflecting all that is good, bad and so-so about the world’s largest economy. This year, it’s that, and then some.

Supply-chain bottlenecks have led to short supply of merchandise, with many goods out of stock. Inflation is at a 30-year high and discounts aren’t as deep. Newly empowered workers have forced wage hikes, yet many retail jobs remain unfilled. And a string of recent robberies at high-end stores in Northern and Southern California have retail workers on edge.

Add the Delta variant and vaccination resistance, which is filling hospital beds and making in-person shopping potentially risky, and it might be a Black Friday like no other.

“I think this is gonna be the first year with a severe backorder,” said Luis Lainez, manager of a T-Mobile store at the West Hollywood Gateway. “I don’t know what we’re gonna do if everybody’s walking in and we’re like, ‘We’re gonna have to ship it out.”

Yet for all those obstacles, the National Retail Federation is projecting retail sales will grow between 8.5% and 10.5% in the months of November and December, from the same period last year, with the potential to break all-time records as shoppers return to stores amid relaxed to no COVID restrictions.

Online shopping, already turbo-charged last year by the pandemic, is up 19.8% from Nov. 1 through Nov. 23, according to Adobe Analytics. For the full holiday shopping season, counted as November and December, online sales are expected to grow 10% from last year to a record $207 billion.

Shoppers awaiting doors to open early Friday were happy to be out from behind their computers.

“It’s kind of a return to normalcy for us,” said Christina Perez, in line outside Target at the West Valley Mall in Tracy. At 6:45 a.m., about 40 people stood awaiting the store’s 7 a.m. opening. “We couldn’t do it the last two years,” Perez said.

She didn’t know what she was out to buy, exactly, and she just wanted to be out with her family. Perez said she had caught COVID-19 twice, and her husband got ill with the virus too. Now fully recovered and vaccinated, the pair was ready to venture out again.

“We just love the interaction,” she said of shopping in person.

Outside Best Buy earlier, around 4:45 a.m., Arturo Zaragoza, 19, sat on the curb halfway down the line of some 30 people. His target: a PlayStation 5 for his little brother, and a MacBook for himself.

Zaragoza wasn’t sure what the exact deal would be for either item, but he said he planned to “buy it regardless.”

“It’s going for the experience. The experience of waiting in line,” he said, laughing. “It’s something to do, I guess.”

Zaragoza said he thought Best Buy’s decision to close Thanksgiving Day, along with some other big retailers, might actually drive less traffic Friday, with people potentially unwilling to get up early after a holiday evening of eating and drinking to rummage the aisles.

Supply chain issues are expected to mar the shopping experience Friday and for the rest of the year even as there are signs the bottleneck in international trade is starting to ease. A full return to normalcy isn’t expected until next year when the current logjam is worked through and factories in China return to full capacity.

Big retailers such as Walmart and Target report they are well stocked for Black Friday and the rest of the shopping season, but smaller retailers without the heft to charter entire ocean freighters are not doing as well.

Retail consultant Britt Beemer, whose firm conducts consumer surveys, thinks that “there is going to be a lot of shock” when buyers find so much merchandise out of stock, and he worries that young consumers used to getting what they want online could really hurt stores.

“The under-30 group is not forgiving at all. Forty-five percent said they they would go on social media and tell all their friends not to shop at that store,” said Beemer, founder and chairman of America’s Research Group.

Of course, the supply shortage is not only a brick-and-mortar disappointment. Online out-of-stock messages have been rising this month and are up 261% compared with November 2019, according to Adobe.

Another chief impediment for retailers and shoppers: a shrinking number of people willing to work in an industry where long hours standing on your feet, dealing with often short-tempered customers, is a given — an experience ratcheted up to 10 on Black Friday.

The Glendale Galleria is opening at 9 a.m. Friday, two hours later than last year, at least partially, management said, due to a shortage of workers.

The problem of employers unable to fill open jobs as the pandemic waned became politicized this year, with Republicans pointing to cash handouts and extended and enhanced jobless benefits. But economists say the situation is far more complex.

The pandemic prompted many older workers who saw their portfolios fatten during the stock market run-up to retire earlier than planned. Others, with new perspective on life and work, are leaving jobs that were too demanding, while the millions of workers laid off last year en masse adapted to a changing economy.

“People have found various ways to survive, and that includes relying on other family members, dramatically reducing costs, working in the gig economy, picking up spare jobs here and there,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. “It means that workers can be a little choosier with regard to what jobs they want to take.”

The dynamic fostered a rejuvenated labor movement and forced employers to raise wages, with deep pockets such as Amazon hiring by the hundreds of thousands while other smaller employers and retailers couldn’t necessarily keep up.

Still, a Reddit forum popular among people who quit their jobs was calling on its 1 million members to boycott Amazon on Black Friday to express their displeasure with the company, corporate America and what they see as greed.

Not working, however, is not a luxury enjoyed by all, and some workers braced themselves for the year’s busiest shopping day.

Kevin Kang, 35, a sales employee at a Verizon store in Koreatown Plaza, will be experiencing his first holiday shopping rush. Last year, he was laid off from his job as a sushi chef at a restaurant on Vermont Avenue. After a month at home, he landed the job.

His store at the Koreatown mall on Western Avenue is running a promo on Thursday and Friday giving buyers $800 in credit if they trade in their used phones. It’s possible, he said, the store could be “crazy busy.”

Kan said he normally doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving but still would rather be at home playing video games with his 10-year-old son.

“I just want to rest,” he said.

Los Angeles Times staff writers Jaime Ding, Anumita Kaur, and Jonah Valdez contributed to this report.