Like sprinters at the starting gate, early-bird shoppers once again descended on the nation’s malls and chain stores Friday morning as the tradition of Black Friday showed no sign of fading among the faithful.

“Black Friday is clearly an experience event now,” said Matt Marsh, who leads Deloitte’s retail advisory practice out of Minneapolis. “It used to be primarily about deals — it still is. But the experience of that day is driving a lot of participation from consumers when ideally people could stay home and shop online without having to stand out in the cold all night.”

As Caribou workers with giant carafes of coffee and hot chocolate strapped to their backs served the throng of chilly shoppers waiting by Mall of America’s north entrance before the doors opened at 5 a.m., people took the time to catch up, sometimes with fast friends from past Black Fridays. The first person in line showed up at 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

Mai Moua has been a hard-core early bird for the past three years, and has figured out how to prepare for the elements and the long overnight with games, movies and three friends who enjoy the carnival atmosphere, too.

Last year, they shared tips and a blanket with someone who drove in unprepared from Chicago.

“We saw him again this year,” said Moua, of Minneapolis. “He’s figured it out.”

Others upped the Black Friday experience and booked a hotel attached to the mall.

In recent years, Kim Weidt and her family have pulled back slightly on the gift spending to splurge for a night at the MOA Radisson Blu, where they can take a skyway to the mall.

Weidt, of Hugo, has used the day-after Thanksgiving blitz to bond with daughters, Katie and Abby, for at least 15 years, she said. They’ve hit various malls through the years, and sometimes include Weidt’s mother to make it a three-generation event.

“It’s our girls’ time,” Weidt said.

Steven Barr, consumer markets expert at PwC, said there’s something more powerful out in the Black Friday madness than just scrolling online at home.

“On a day like Black Friday, it’s not about convenience. It’s purely about emotion,” Barr said. “A website can’t give you goose bumps.”

Indeed, there were large crowds across the country Friday, even in New York City and other eastern cities experiencing record low temperatures. By the end of the day, Mall of America officials expected 200,000 shoppers to go through the doors.

About 116 million shoppers were expected to hit stores on Friday, part of a five-day promotional sprint for retailers that will continue through Monday. Richfield-based Best Buy, for example, is offering for the first time Saturday a “50 deals at 50 percent off” promotion.

The holiday shopping season presents a big test for a 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 home buying has fallen outright.

Still, retailers have predicted a brisk season. The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, is expecting 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.

Adobe Analytics predicted that online sales on Thanksgiving were at least $3.5 million, an increase of more than a quarter over last year. Online shoppers seeking Thanksgiving Day deals had shelled out $1.75 billion as of 5 p.m. — a more than 28 percent increase over last year.

Minneapolis-based Target Corp., while not offering dollar estimates, said it received double the orders from its app than last year and also saw an uptick on Thanksgiving Day of people picking up online orders.

Yet even with Thanksgiving store hours and 24-hour online deals threatening the day-after-the-holiday bonanza, the doorbusters still drive the Black Friday tradition.

While standing out in the cold is half the fun for Nora Shardi of Burnsville, she and her friends wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the deals.

“The deals are great. You can’t ignore them,” she said, sweeping her arms across a cart overflowing with bags of her own as well as those of sister, Ayni, and friends Isnino Jimale and Roda Farah.

Jill Renslow, the Mall of America’s senior vice president of business development, said the decision in 2016 to shut down the mall on Thanksgiving and reopen early Friday re-energized the staff and focused the promotional efforts.

“Retailers start their deals earlier and earlier,” she said. “For us, this is an event. People love the convenience of online shopping, but there’s something special about brick-and-mortar.”

But MOA also knew it had to up its game to keep the Black Friday momentum from past years, said Chris Grap, whose job it is to dream up the promotions.

“We’re going for a sense of excitement, a sense of joy,” said Grap during an early-morning tour of Santaland. In an area where shoppers were picking gifts from a scratch-off game, one shopper carried off a fishing rod while another opened a wrapped box with a Kate Spade handbag inside.

There’s a buzz in the store unlike any other day, said Dave Thiel, who isn’t quite sure if this is his 32nd or 33rd Black Friday working at Target.

“You can sense the energy from guests,” said Thiel, who set the alarm for 3 a.m. and arrived for his shift overseeing the grocery department at the Lino Lakes store by 4:30 a.m.

Thiel started working for Target when he was at the University of Minnesota and spent the first half of his career on the general merchandise side before moving over to the food side 16 years ago.

He gets a kick out of shoppers “who go a little overboard.” A family one year showed up in matching onesies. Another time, a group of eight had matching red shirts proclaiming “Shop ’til you drop.”

“Seeing the smile,” he said, “ that’s the fun of it all.”

 

Correction: Previous versions of this article misattributed the fact that online shoppers spent $1.75 billion on Thanksgiving Day deals by 5 p.m. The information was from Adobe Analytics, not Target.