MAYS LANDING — Even though temperatures were below freezing Friday morning, a line of shoppers ready with chairs and blankets stretched outside the Hamilton Mall, waiting for it to open at 6 a.m.

“We’re here for all the different giveaways and the deals at the stores,” said Candice Greenley, of Egg Harbor Township.

As mall security opened the doors, shoppers scattered either to the customer service desk, where they were offered coupons and giveaways, or to their destination stores.

However, their steps lacked the same energy seen in years past.

The reason, some suspect, is the convenience of online shopping.

Joe Beach and his daughter Brittany Beach-Gandy, of Vineland, said they have noticed a drop in shoppers over the past 10 years that they’ve awakened early to go Black Friday shopping.

“I think every year it’s less and less people because people buy online,” Beach-Gandy said. “I think they have to give away stuff to get people in.”

The holiday shopping season presents a big test for the U.S. economy, whose overall growth so far this year has relied on a burst of consumer spending. Americans upped their spending during the first half of 2018 at the strongest pace in four years, yet retail sales gains have tapered off recently and the pace of homebuying has fallen.

Sales totals over the next month will be a good indicator as to whether consumers simply paused to catch their breath or if they feel slightly less optimistic about the economy heading into 2019.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, expects holiday retail sales in November and December — excluding automobiles, gasoline and restaurants — to increase as much as 4.8 percent over 2017 for a total of $720.89 billion. That growth would mark a slowdown from last year’s 5.3 percent, which was the largest gain since 2010. But the figure is still healthy.

The retail economy also is tilting steeply toward online shopping. Over the past 12 months, purchases at nonstore retailers such as Amazon have jumped 12.1 percent.

Meanwhile, sales at traditional department stores have slumped 0.3 percent. Adobe Analytics, which tracks online retail spending, reported Thursday that Thanksgiving should reach a record $3.7 billion in online retail sales, up 29 percent from the same year-ago period.

A holiday tradition

Wearing a Santa hat and circular sunglasses with bright red lenses, Nadina Fornia, of Egg Harbor City, said she hasn’t missed a Black Friday shopping trip since she started the tradition almost 30 years ago.

Fornia said she noticed fewer people than she’s seen over the past two decades but blamed the cold for keeping shoppers away.

“Cyber Monday is maybe a little better because you can have the warmth of your home and do it, but (for) other little things, it’s just easier to come to the mall and buy it yourself,” she said.

Nearby at the Best Buy in the Consumer Square shopping plaza, Janelle and Eric Thars, of Galloway Township, attended the store’s morning opening but left empty-handed. They said they got to see the store’s deals but planned to shop online instead.

Best Buy attempted to curb the at-home shopping trend with in-store incentives.

“The deal was only for this morning,” said Sophia Johnson, of Absecon, who was first in line to pick up the advertised $250 Smart TV doorbuster. Ten minutes after the store opened, Johnson and her husband were out the door, TV in cart.

Adobe Analytics predicts Cyber Monday will remain the overall revenue leader for Thanksgiving weekend with both the highest predicted revenue of $7.8 billion and the fastest growth at a rate of 17.6 percent.

Mariah Chapman, 20, of Linwood, went Black Friday shopping for the first time with her friends. They grabbed coffee beforehand and sat in patio chairs outside the mall entrance.

But Chapman, 20, said she had higher expectations for the experience.

“I thought it’d be, like, more people,” she said.

Crystal Rodriguez, manager of marketing at the mall, said this year’s turnout met the mall’s expectations. Within an hour, 200 people had entered the mall’s $2,000 mystery giveaway.

Sears, which plans to close for good Sunday, still had some shoppers strolling through after its 7 a.m. opening looking to take advantage of the store’s heavily discounted items.

“It’s kinda sad,” said 16-year-old Julia Bannan, of Egg Harbor Township. “It was like the first store, and now it’s empty.”

Bannan, who was shopping with her friends and mother, hoped to find a good deal on a sweater but found with the last bits of inventory on sale, there was little left in the massive anchor store.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact: 609-272-7258 Twitter @AvalonZoppo

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