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How Much Are Americans Willing To Spend This Holiday Shopping Season?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today is Black Friday, traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year, and this year is no exception in spite of new surges of the coronavirus. In fact, retailers are predicting a record-breaking holiday shopping season. And retail surveys indicate the majority of American shoppers plan to check out this week's deals, whether in person or online. NPR's retail correspondent Alina Selyukh is at the mall at Prince George's talking to shoppers looking for some of those deals in person in Hyattsville, Md., just outside of D.C. Hi, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello. Hello.

SHAPIRO: How busy is it there?

SELYUKH: It's pretty bustling. Lots of people strolling around, just kind of checking out whatever's on sale, getting clothes, bedding, even jewelry. I saw a line at GameStop for electronics. Even Santa is here to pose with pets from behind a Plexiglas shield. A lot of people, as you might imagine, are here to get going on their holiday shopping. I talked to Antoinette Mingo, who was running into a Macy's really quickly to grab a gift for her son.

ANTOINETTE MINGO: I'm a touchy-feely person. I need to touch and feel and look at it. So I'm just crossing my fingers. Hope they have it in here. And then I'm done.

SELYUKH: She was a little anxious, but she had her mask. And she was hoping that kind of running in and out was going to keep her safe.

SHAPIRO: You know, when I think of Black Friday, I think of people lining up before dawn for deals that they can only get one day of the year. Is that the same as what's happening this year?

SELYUKH: Black Friday is such a loose proposition and year to year gets looser and looser. This year, sales started as far back as October, and they're going to run through December. So stores are trying to spread out a potential crush of both shipments and dangerous crowds. And I talked to people here who were only here to pick up online orders. You know, so this question of, when is it best to buy stuff, I actually posed it to Vivek Pandya, who tracks online shopping at Adobe Digital Insights. He said toys, for example, are pretty good discounts all week, but especially on Sunday before Cyber Monday.

VIVEK PANDYA: Black Friday, we tend to see really strong discounts for televisions and appliances and then items like tools and home improvement. I would say you can kind of wait until after Christmas.

SELYUKH: And in terms of what people are shopping for, we're kind of back into, like, classics land. You know, we're getting Lego sets, Barbie scooters, TVs and laptops. This year, it's all about things that give us comfort. Lots of lines here at Victoria's Secret for, you know, leggings and pajamas. Even in appliances, one of the top sellers this year, according to Adobe, is air fryers from that comfort food category. And in terms of pop culture reference, apparently sales of chess-related things are up 300% this month thanks to the Netflix show "Queen's Gambit."

SHAPIRO: Big picture - retailers really needed a good holiday season after the year that they've been through. But I'm still surprised to hear that that many people are out shopping given the pandemic.

SELYUKH: I am as well. And I don't know that this is near the levels that this mall would normally see in a normal year. It is still sort of a make-it-or-break-it season in a make-it-or-break-it year, if you will. Small stores are really struggling the most. Data suggests that they are not the winners of this holiday shopping spree, partly because, you know, shoppers want fast shipping and free shipping. And all of that is really expensive. And even at this mall, even though this mall is pretty busy today, it still bears pretty clear scars of kind of the difficult year that especially department stores are having. I'm standing not very far from a large J.C. Penney that is very blighted and very empty with a faded sign that's kind of a shadow across the wall.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Alina Selyukh reporting from Hyattsville, Md., on this Black Friday. Thank you, Alina.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.