As America’s most densely populated city, New York was hit extremely hard by Covid-19. WIth some of the busiest fashion retail thoroughfares in the world, shutdowns and social distancing took a heavy toll on the area’s businesses. But over the weekend, in-person shoppers returned in big numbers to the Big Apple, partly in pursuit of bargains, but also to celebrate the joy of being immersed in the very crowds they typically complain about.
On Thursday, Macy’s in midtown was the terminus point of the 96th annual Thanksgiving Day Parade and 24 hours later, it was bustling with shoulder-to-shoulder shoppers taking advantage of Black Friday deals from almost every brand imaginable.
Macy’s sales associates said the rush was not yet comparable to pre-pandemic levels, but a vast improvement from Black Friday 2021 when mask and vaccine requirements were still the order of the day and ghosts of 2020 were still palpable.
“It used to be bag-on-bag, foot-on-foot,” one associate said. “Not since Covid have I seen it this busy, though.”
It appeared customers were coming at least as much for the social experience as the deals.
“When it comes to clothes, people prefer shopping in person. You want to know if it fits so you don’t have to go through the hassles of returning,” another associate said. “People want the experience, no matter what—sale or no sale, everyone is going to be in here.”
Rachel Freeman came all the way from Kent, England just for the New York shopping experience. Macy’s was her first stop.
“We don’t have stores like this in the UK,” she said. “I came here on a bus—total tourist stuff. I just love this store.”
A return to the joy of in-person shopping was also part of the rationale for her trip.
“You can feel it; it’s tactile so you don’t have to send it back,” Freeman said. “Recently, I tried to send something back and it sat at my front door for three weeks waiting for it to be picked up and I had to take it to the store myself—so that turned out to be counterproductive…and annoying.”
Rowland’s Bar and Grill, named for the department store’s founder and not at all dissimilar in vibe from an airport bar, was a 2016 add-on to the men’s wear floor of Macy’s and it provided Freeman the opportunity to have a glass of wine and catch a bit of the England vs. U.S. World Cup match before returning to the mayhem.
“There are big department stores in London, but in the towns everything is going online, which is convenient some of the time, but you don’t get the experience,” she said. “I go to the big stores in London a lot, but you don’t get the feel you do here. It’s iconic, isn’t it? There’s a bar here—you’d never have that in the UK.”
But when it comes to shopping-plus-drinking experiences, Macy’s has nothing on Nordstrom’s and its flagship location with five bars on its sprawling 320,000-square foot campus at the base of the tallest building in midtown.
Opened in October of 2019, the Seattle-based company’s attempt at competing with the titans of New York department stores was considered ambitious. By the time Covid arrived six months later it looked like an enormous misstep, but on Black Friday 2022, Mike Kerins was holding court in its Shoe Bar, a well-lit island on a floor covered completely in women’s shoes referred to affectionately by the bartenders as ‘Daddy Day Care.’
“I’m here to try to pick up chicks,” the contractor from Westchester, N.Y. joked. “Nah, I’ve been married for 24 years. I’m just meeting dudes, good guys. We sit around while our wives shop. This is nice; I’m really enjoying my company here.”
Two female customers made the trip from Montreal for the shopping and couldn’t help but fall into some bubbly at the Shoe Bar.
“No, we don’t have anything like this in Montreal—we have café’s,” one said. “This is marketing genius.”
Gen-Z shopper Sydney Wolk was able to deposit her dad Mike at The Shoe Bar for some much-needed respite after making all the Black Friday stops, the last being the tree-lighting at Saks Fifth Avenue.
“That was horrendous—I haven’t seen a madhouse in a department store like that since 2019,” she said. “Nordstrom’s is my favorite… You can walk around with a drink, too—it’s relaxing.”
But Black Friday isn’t all about department stores. Storefronts in the Fifth Avenue shopping hub in the Flatiron District advertised sales on sandwich boards and saw a steady stream of customers, even if at a less frenetic pace than their department store peers.
Billy Weeks, manager at Cole Haan, had all hands on deck Friday knowing that shoe buyers prefer in-person shopping over online.
“With shoe shopping people prefer to try things on in person, however there are more options online so they can try something on here and have something similar ordered with free shipping,” Weeks said. “Shoes, for example, are going to be better for brick and mortar. People buy online and they just have to take it back.”
Around the corner on Broadway, Timothy Oulton is a high-end curio-furniture store that is altogether welcoming with its handshake for a doorknob, but perhaps a bit intimidating in an English sort of way with its bowler hat for a logo and glistening interior.
A sandwich board at the door advertising 20% off everything for Black Friday makes it more approachable.
“We have an online market, but most of our interest is funneled into the brick and mortar,” manager Joshua Frye said. “Especially with leather, since we don’t correct and everything is hand-distressed — it would be challenging to determine whether you wanted it based on a jpeg. You want to sit in it, feel the leather, see how it responds to your touch—you’ve got to have that in person experience.”
There is no bar, per se, at Timothy Oulton, but there are well stoked liquor cabinets that blend in seamlessly with a vibe of creatively refined opulence.
“I think there’s just no substitute for hospitality and that’s something we take very seriously with this brand, more so than any other furniture brand I’ve worked with,” Frye said. “That experience can’t be translated digitally. Of course, you’ve got to use those tools, and if you can confirm pieces and make transactions on a digital plane, all the power to you, but I can’t give you a cup of tea over the Internet.”