PRINCETON — Heading for the stores after the Thanksgiving feast is the Christmas shopping season’s traditional start, but this year the combination of a pandemic and changes in America’s shopping habits was impacting the numbers of Black Friday buyers that merchants were seeing this year.

Area shopping centers were seeing a good number of consumers by Friday afternoon. For example, parking lots in front of the Mercer Mall’s anchor stores and main entrances were seeing a steady stream of vehicles coming and going. The mall was open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for Black Friday.

Stores in places like Mercer Street in Princeton were seeing steady streams of customer traffic.

“We’re doing pretty good,” said Tim Gibson, an employee at the Blue Ridge Bee Company. “We opened at 8 a.m.; they come all day long. This is really our first year open. We didn’t open until December last year.”

Not far away at Cheap Thrills Records on Stafford Drive, store owner Wyatt Lilly was serving customers.

“It’s going really well,” he said. “We’ve been extremely busy and we’re also doing a brisk online business as well. We’ve been busier than last year both in person and online. Things are going well for us today.”

The music industry was helping independent record stores by releasing special batches of collectible records on Black Friday, Lilly said. Some of these new albums were limited editions and others were older albums which were being released on vinyl for the first time.

“Stuff like that is only available at independent record stores like ours,” he stated. “People love them. We’ve had people call us from as far as Atlanta, Ga. looking for stuff, so it’s a pretty big deal. They were looking for things they can’t find locally. These releases do generate large amounts of traffic. And we’ve had some buy two, get one free deals, so we’ve had a really good turnout.”

Other stores were seeing less in-person shopping. 

“We haven’t had hardly any foot traffic today,” owner Mike Dye of New Graham Knives in Bluefield, Va. said Friday afternoon. “The gift shop has not had a lot of foot traffic and the knife shop has not had a lot of foot traffic.”

The neighboring New Graham Pharmacy had seen a 75 percent reduction in foot traffic: most people were getting their prescriptions at the drive-through window, Dye said.

“As far as Black Friday, it’s just like Tuesday, March 7 to us,” he stated. “There’s nothing going on here at all. It’s a sad state. It really is.”

Dye said the knife store’s online sales have done well this year, but not every small business in a rural area has an effective website. He hoped that more foot-traffic would arrive today during Small Business Saturday, which was offering sales.

“Hopefully, that is going to draw some people,” he said. “We’re hoping that’s going to help.” 

Cyber Monday offered the opportunity to make more sales, but it is difficult for small businesses to compete against big online retailers like Amazon, Dye added.

Fewer people are doing their shopping in person, he said. In the past, Black Friday shopping meant going to stores and interacting with other consumers.

“It used to be a big ho, ho, ho thing,” Dye stated. “Now people would rather sit at home and order things on their cellphone. COVID just compounded that. There’s that change in buying habits by generation. Unless people come out and support the small businesses, we’re going to be gone in a few years. It’s that simple.”

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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