Macy’s was ready for Black Friday.
Shelves were stacked high with $25 fragrance sets and $15.99 puffy jackets. Signs promised "incredible doorbusters" and 75% off silver jewelry.
But when the store at the Arlington, Virginia, mall opened at 6 a.m., an employee rolled up the gate to the first floor entrance and shrugged. There were no shoppers in sight.
"It's a ghost town," said Nicola Carmichael, 47, of Germantown, Maryland., who walked in a few minutes later. "The early deals have already happened and the ambiance is just, look around: Nobody, nobody, nobody."
This year's Black Friday sales began in October, long before most Americans had even begun thinking about Thanksgiving. In the weeks since, retailers have pushed out non-stop "HoliDeals" and "Early Access" promotions aimed at getting consumers to spend early and often. A number of factors, including looming tariffs, winter storms and a shorter-than-usual holiday shopping season, have kept retailers on edge during what is typically their most lucrative period of the year. Many are banking that the time-release roll outs of promotions and special offers will keep customers hooked.
But many shoppers now view Black Friday as just another day of sales. When they do buy, they're increasingly doing so online: This year, for the first time, most U.S. consumers say they will do the bulk of their holiday shopping on computers and mobile devices, according to professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
"I thought it was going to be packed," Anika Smith said Friday as she thumbed through a rack of puffy vests at the Gap in Fashion Centre mall in Pentagon City. "But no. All I see are 50-off signs and no people."
Around her, a number of stores, including Ann Taylor, J. Crew, Express and Hollister, had marked everything half off. The denim brand True Religion was advertising 50% off everything, plus free frosted mugs. Large signs at the Gap hawked 60% discounts until 8 a.m.
"I was expecting it to be busier, but I'm not complaining," said Virginia Orellana, 33, who typically shops online but got up early to hit the mall. "There's no mess, it's clean and organized. And I got a good deal on pajamas and socks."
She began her holiday shopping online on Thanksgiving Day, buying half-priced sunglasses while she cooked. After the meal, she went to Michael's, which opened at 6 p.m. "It was so empty and depressing," said Orellana, who lives in Arlington, Virginia. "I bought some frames and ribbon, then said 'It's time to go home.' It just didn't feel right."
For decades, Black Friday signaled the official start of the holiday shopping season, a day of unbelievably deep discounts that drew hordes of shoppers into stores. Retailers saved their best deals for the day after Thanksgiving, and consumers responded by turning overnight camp-outs and long lines into an American rite of passage.
But the day has morphed into a months-long discount fest as retailers push the season's boundaries: Walmart began this year's holiday sale on Oct. 25, a full five weeks before Thanksgiving. Target followed two weeks later, with a day of "real" Black Friday deals including $200 markdowns on the iPhone 11 and half-off air fryers. Shoppers say snagging the best price has turned into one big guessing game.
"It's become a constant question of, 'Is this the best deal I can get, or should I wait another two weeks?'" said Tami Kim, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. "Retailers are offering more deals, starting earlier. But consumers aren't excited."
May'zey Brown has been eyeing the sales for weeks. Her shopping list includes a TV, iPad, Amazon Fire TV Stick and a trampoline for her 4-year-old daughter. Just one problem, she says: It's all on sale, all the time.
"I have no idea when the best deals are anymore," said Brown, 24, who lives in Quinton, Oklahoma. "Everything is always marked down, but nothing is particularly attention-grabbing."
That parallels the online migration. Americans spent a record $4.2 billion online on Thanksgiving Day, up about 15% from last year, according to Adobe Analytics. The crush of shoppers led to slower websites and outages for some retailers, including Costco, Nordstrom Rack and H&M. Adobe expects online sales of $7.5 billion on Black Friday, and another $9.4 billion on Cyber Monday.
The holiday shopping season - from Thanksgiving to Christmas - is six days shorter than it was last year, leaving retailers particularly anxious. Many merchants also have loaded up on inventory in anticipation of upcoming tariffs, which would raise the price of laptops, high chairs, winter gloves and other consumer goods beginning Dec. 15.
"It's a double whammy for retailers: They've got a bunch of inventory, and fewer days to sell it," said Natalie Kotlyar, head of the retail practice at professional services firm BDO USA. "There's a lot of concern that if they can't sell it now, they'll have to offer even bigger markdowns next year."
Merchants also fear a repeat of 2018, when holiday spending grew a mere 2.1% instead of the projected 4.5%. The National Retail Federation expects 4% growth this year, to roughly $730 billion, but warns that economic head winds - including tariffs and stock market fluctuations - could push down consumer spending again. Consumer confidence, meanwhile, declined a fourth-consecutive month in November, the Conference Board reported this week.
"There is significant economic unease," Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist for the NRF, said last month.
Complicating matters this year are coast-to-coast winter storms that may keep shoppers from heading to stores, according to forecasting service AccuWeather. Colder-than-usual temperatures in November have already led to declining store traffic, according to Joel Myers, AccuWeather's chief executive, who recently downgraded his forecast for holiday spending growth, to 3.6% from 3.8%.
Meanwhile, the number of Americans who shop on Black Friday is declining, though this is partly due to the weeks-long discounting. An estimated 36% of U.S. consumers plan to shop on Black Friday this year, compared with 51% in 2016, according to professional services giant PricewaterhouseCoopers.
"Black Friday has almost become a nonevent," Kotlyar said. "Consumers are seeing this constant build up to Black Friday - promotion after promotion - and they're waiting to see what comes next."
Lyndon Johnson was expecting long lines when he showed up at a Best Buy in Arlington, Virginia, on Friday morning. But he breezed right in when the store opened at 8 a.m.
By 8:08, he'd already picked up a laptop - marked down to about $1,000 from $1,300 - and was on his way home.
"It doesn't feel like Black Friday," he said. "It feels like a regular day with regular deals."
Getting a customer's attention is far more difficult, analysts say, as doorbusters and steep markdowns are no longer enough. Instead, retailers are adding in hourly flash sales and daily deals designed to create a sense of urgency.
"Holiday shopping has become a game of discount chicken," said Rob Garf, vice president of retail strategy and insights at Salesforce. "Retailers are offering deals earlier and earlier, but consumers are waiting longer to see if they can outsmart them at their own game."
The heavy discounting, analysts say, is a remnant of the Great Recession, when retail sales plunged to a 35-year low. Customers have since come to expect deals, leaving struggling retailers little choice but to keep cutting prices, biting into already-thin profit margins.
The rise of online shopping has also changed how - and when - Americans shop. Today's consumers are more likely to buy one or two items at a time over a course of weeks, analysts say, instead of stocking up during a couple of trips to the mall, as they might have done 10 or 20 years ago.
"Consumers are spreading out their holiday shopping, so retailers are responding by offering more promotions all season long," said Katherine Cullen, senior director of consumer and industry insights for the National Retail Federation. "It's becoming harder to predict when you're going to find the best deals."
For years, Conor Orten made the rounds on Black Friday, picking up tablets, gaming consoles, LED lightbulbs and video games at Walmart, Best Buy and Target. But this year, he's kind of over it.
Plus, he's already picked up the TV he wanted.
"I kept seeing deals popping up all the time: 50% off, 60% off," said Orten, 24, who works with hospice patients in Knoxville, Tennessee. "But there's still that voice in your head: Should I wait until Black Friday? What about Cyber Monday? Will the deals get even better?"
Finally, he says, he got tired of fretting. He bought a 50-inch TV, marked half-off, at Walmart.com for $200. And despite some lingering doubts, he says he’s - mostly - made peace with his purchase.
“I can’t spend my life waiting for the absolute best deal,” he said.