‘Let’s just go to the mall and spend money’: Tired of being indoors, shoppers flock to reopened retail plazas

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It wasn’t Black Friday, by any stretch, though there were lots of sales. Let’s call it Green Monday, in New Jersey at least.

Malls there reopened at reduced capacity Monday, and hundreds of shoppers from the Philadelphia region made their way to the Cherry Hill Mall.

Spread across Camden County’s shopping mecca were plenty of reminders that the threat of COVID-19 still looms. Employees and patrons wore face masks, digital signs reminded people to stay six feet away from others, and maps indicated stations where visitors could find hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes.

Emanuel Jennings of Trenton waits in line for an Auntie Anne’s pretzel at Cherry Hill Mall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Emanuel Jennings and his friends took a chance when they made the 40-minute drive from Trenton looking for deals. But it paid off.

“We saw some 50% off, 60%, some T-shirts were like $5 — it was a lot of sales,” Jennings said while he waited in line at Auntie Anne’s Pretzels with his purchases in hand.

Making the experience all the better for Jennings were the precautions taken by shoppers and stores alike.

“This is the first outing in a big environment with a lot of people, but it’s not bad,” he said. “It’s a lot of space, everybody is respecting everybody’s distance, so it’s a pretty good experience so far.”

Monday’s mallgoers, however, remain in the minority.

Last week, a Morning Consult poll scoping out consumer comfort levels with activities such as going out to a restaurant or concert found that going to a mall saw the biggest drop in comfort since mid-June — a dip of six percentage points.

Still, despite Amazon’s ability to deliver orders to a buyer’s doorstep within a matter of days in the middle of a pandemic, sometimes you just have to get to an actual brick-and-mortar store, many shoppers said.

Paul Maranca of Philadelphia and his 10-year-old daughter, Mia, leave Cherry Hill Mall with their purchases. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Mia Maranca, 10, recently had an experience adults know all too well: Her parents bought her some summer clothes online. When the items arrived, they didn’t quite fit.

“We had to go back and forth, and, you know, bring it back,” said Mia, who added she was excited to get some shorts at Cherry Hill Mall and do something other than ride her bike or hoverboard.

For Frank Bell, heading to the mall from Blackwood was influenced by a fear of missing out.

Frank Bell of Blackwood, N.J. shops Cherry Hill Mall with his son, Frank, 10, and his son’s mother, Vonnielle Forest, as the mall opens for the first time since the pandemic. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

As counties in some states, like Texas and California, are closing bars after COVID-19 spikes, Bell wants to make sure he takes advantage of deals and the opportunity to try things out in person — just in case New Jersey reinstates shutdowns too.

“So I’m like looking at the fact if we do get a second wave, we could be closed, and I could have [taken] advantage,” he said.

It’s not an unreasonable fear. Cherry Hill Mall has outdoor dining available at restaurants that face parking, but its plans to resume indoor dining at limited capacity were put on pause Monday by Gov. Phil Murphy.

In Pennsylvania, shopping malls reopened last week, but Kiyera Poindexter said stores inside them have been slow to reopen. She left King of Prussia Mall disappointed to see most of the stores she wanted to visit closed last week. Willow Grove Park mall was only slightly better on Monday, she said.

Poindexter was one of the many shoppers who said, mall or not, she’s been spending.

“I just wanted to shop,” said the warehouse employee from Philadelphia, who is considered an essential worker.

On Monday, she told her friends, “Let’s just go to the mall and spend money.”

Customers line up outside Zara at the Cherry Hill Mall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

According to an advanced estimate of retail and food service sales published by the U.S. Department of Commerce, sales from April to May jumped by 17.7%. May 2020 estimated sales were 6.1% less than the same time last year, while experiencing more than a 30% jump in online sales.

But not all sectors are seeing shoppers return, the report said. Building materials and garden equipment have seen upticks in purchases. Furniture, home furnishings, and electronics sales have dipped.

Shoppers can expect more detailed analyses of their spending habits as experts try to get a sense of how the U.S. is recovering from prolonged coronavirus shutdowns, said Subodha Kumar, a professor of marketing and supply chain management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business.

Consumer spending — that is, spending on goods and services — makes up 70% of the country’s gross domestic product, which is often a metric politicians use to measure how well the economy is doing at any given time.

Retail purchases make up 40% of consumer spending.