Freezing drizzle that coated streets, sidewalks and parking lots didn’t stop shoppers in Bismarck from seeking out Black Friday bargains.
Many customers lined up at stores the day before, as some businesses opened their doors for holiday deals as most people were finishing up their Thanksgiving feast.
Brad Stevens sat outside the Bismarck Best Buy with a blanket in the cold Thursday afternoon, the fourth in line to get into the store for early Black Friday doorbusters. He planned to buy TVs and household items after arriving more than two hours before the store was to open.
"This is six years in a row that I've been doing Best Buy," said Stevens, from Fessenden.
He sat next to Branden Byrum, who also was in line for a TV. It was his first time out for Black Friday sales. Other shoppers waited in their warm, running vehicles in the parking lot but began to line up closer to 5 p.m.
Black Friday traditionally is the kickoff to the holiday shopping season. This year’s season is the shortest since 2013 because Thanksgiving fell on the last Thursday in November -- the latest possible date it could be. That means customers will have less time to shop and retailers will have less time to woo them.
The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, factored the shorter season into its forecast, but it says the real drivers will be the job market. It forecasts that holiday sales will rise between 3.8% and 4.2%, an increase from the disappointing 2.1% growth in the November and December 2018 period.
The holiday sales increase in North Dakota typically is “a little bit above that national average,” North Dakota Retail Association President Mike Rud said.
“I would hope again we could hit that,” he said. “I think our retailers are pretty positive about the state of the economy, despite what’s happening in the farm economy.”
Tariff wars have hurt farmers and ranchers financially, and a wet summer and early October snowstorm kept many from finishing their harvest.
“I think there’s no question it’s going to be impacting the holiday season to some degree,” Rud said. “North Dakotans are a conservative bunch when it comes to money. A lot of them, if they don’t have money in hand, they’re not likely to spend. There’s no question our farm economy is in crisis.”
But the bad news is balanced somewhat by rising wages and by record production in the oil patch.
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“Some folks out there in rural North Dakota are going to have a little more money in their pocket,” Rud said.
Overall, “I think it’s going to be a pretty positive shopping season for most of the country, including North Dakota,” he said.
Black Friday sales started at 6 a.m. at Bismarck's Kirkwood Mall but didn't really pick up until after 8 a.m., probably due to road reports, General Manager Jennifer Wilson said.
"Now we are fast and furious," she said early Friday afternoon.
The mall has no traffic counters, but Wilson estimated at least 80% of people in the mall had a shopping bag -- a high count, she said.
"The stores are telling us that the people that are shopping this year are buying more, like, they're coming with a list and they're checking off lots of people, trying to get it all accomplished, it seems like, more than normal," Wilson said.
Black Friday is followed by Small Business Saturday, meant to encourage people to shop local. More than 40 businesses in downtown Bismarck are taking part, and the Bismarck Downtowners Association has compiled a map on its website to help shoppers find stores at www.downtownbismarck.com. Mandan businesses also are organizing around the day.
Kirkwood Mall kicks off Small Business Saturday with its "North Dakota owned" campaign and a gift card giveaway at 10 a.m. About 35% of the mall's 80-plus tenants are North Dakota-owned businesses, Wilson said.
Despite inclement wintry weather in the forecast, "We have no plans to do anything but stay open all weekend," Wilson said.
Next comes Cyber Monday, created by retailers to encourage people to shop online.
But for many, Thursday sales and the Saturday and Monday events haven’t diminished Black Friday.
“I think it’s part of the holiday tradition,” Rud said. “I don’t see that changing a whole bunch.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.