This Black Friday, NJ malls are going all out to bring shoppers back

After almost two years in COVID's shadow, North Jersey malls are banking on special events, creative promotions and holiday-themed campaigns to lure back customers as the holiday shopping season gets underway.

Whether it's new luxury fashion districts, the chance for your pet to chill with Santa or an Instagram-friendly "Influencer for a Day" spree with a professional photographer, malls will deploy a host of in-person perks and attractions.

With vaccines now readily available, retailers hope that will revive businesses that were struggling to keep up with internet sales and declining foot traffic even before the coronavirus hit. The pandemic made last year the "quietest Black Friday in 20 years," according to Coresight Research, a New York-based firm that tracks retail data.

Now, mall operators say they're cautiously optimistic, even with supply chain backups, inflationary prices and labor shortages continuing to bedevil the U.S. economy.

"I think people have gotten over the virus at this point and feel comfortable enough to go back to the malls," said Chuck Lanyard, president of retail brokerage firm The Goldstein Group in Paramus.

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"Malls will still have their problems and suffer from losing their big-box anchors," Lanyard said. "But people still like going to malls, and we can expect to see more discounting to draw people in."

Trouble before the pandemic

Still, it'll be a battle.

Almost 43% of consumers expect to do their shopping online on Thanksgiving and 60% will do so for Black Friday, according to a Coresight survey. Overall, e-commerce sales are expected to grow by a third during the October-to-December season, compared with last year, the researcher said.

The National Retail Federation, meanwhile, expects that online and other non-store sales will jump by 11% to 15% this year, to $226 billion.

The pandemic simply added a challenge for malls that were already rushing to reinvent themselves, Lanyard said.

The health crisis, in fact, may have helped in part, by forcing a reduction in rental rates for some retail locations. Landlords were able to fill previously vacant spaces, as they did from 2008 to 2012 after the Great Recession, Lanyard added.

Major mall operators like Westfield, owner of Garden State Plaza in Paramus, and Simon, which runs The Shops at Riverside in Hackensack, will pull out all the stops to lure people back, he said.

The perks of in-person Black Friday shopping

"After the last year and a half, people are looking forward to the holidays and will make every effort to spend as much as they can," Lanyard said. The pandemic "deprived them of what they like to do, like going to restaurants, movies and shopping. You're going to see people who want to buy something and take it home right away."

National Retail Federation chief economist Jack Kleinhenz agreed.

While online buying will flourish, the trade group also expects a shift back to a more traditional holiday shopping experience, he said.

“The outlook for the holiday season looks very bright,” Kleinhenz said. “The unusual and beneficial position we find ourselves in is that households have increased spending vigorously throughout most of 2021 and remain with plenty of holiday purchasing power.”

American Dream, the retail and entertainment complex in East Rutherford, will celebrate its first Black Friday will doorbusters and giveaways.

The mall has been haunted by delays over the past two decades. After finally debuting a theme park and indoor ski slope, it was on the verge of celebrating its next phased opening in late March 2020. But grand openings for a water park and retail wing were scratched when the pandemic forced the property to shut for more than six months.

This Friday, the doors will open at 7 a.m., and early visitors will be rewarded with tickets to American Dream attractions like the DreamWorks Water Park, Sea Life Aquarium and Legoland, as well as surprises from retail partners, said Jill Renslow, an executive vice president for Triple Five, the site's owner. Shoppers at select stores will get access to a "shop to spin" giveaway wheel.

"There's nothing better than brick-and-mortar shopping, especially during holidays," Renslow said. "New stores and restaurants are opening up weekly. Shopping in person also gives you a chance to explore different gift ideas for friends and family."

Other in-person perks the mall is counting on: live entertainment, a double-decker candy cane chute and the nightly lighting of American Dream's 30-foot-by-30-foot Hanukkah menorah, designed by New Jersey native and famed interior designer Jonathan Adler.

Luxe life

There will be no traditional pictures with Santa at American Dream, but Saint Nick and his elves will be rolling through the mall's luxury retail wing, The Avenue, on a golf cart.

The Shops at Riverside has also added a luxury district, including stores such as Bottega Veneta, Jimmy Choo, Max Mara, Tiffany & Co., Tod’s, Salvatore Ferragamo, Ermenegildo Zegna, Lee Perla and Wolford.

"In-store shopping is preferred, as shoppers who frequent these luxury shops do not have to worry about shipping delays and will have take-away gifts readily available throughout the mall," according to a statement from mall owner Simon Property Group.

In Paramus, Garden State Plaza planned to kick things off last Friday by lighting its towering Big Santa statue atop the mall. The mall is offering 30 new stores this year, said Senior Marketing Director Lisa Herrmann.

"The Garden State Plaza has always been a destination for in-person holiday shopping, and we expect it to continue this season," she said.

A free rewards program will offer shoppers up to $900 in credits for purchases at the mall. Guests can also buy tickets to Season to Sparkle, a holiday display that offers five photo scenes and a changing room to switch outfits.

"We took a lot of time curating holiday décor for the mall," Herrmann said. "It's really beautiful if you're looking to get out of the house and get into the holiday spirit."

The Mall at Short Hills expects a busy Black Friday based on sales so far, said General Manager Sarah Williams. The complex will be adding stores and pop-ups for the holidays, offering Rolex and Omega watches, Warby Parker eyewear and Uggs. Ruth’s Chris Steak House just opened for additional dining.

'Private experience'

Like other outlets, the business is counting on "holiday experiences" to augment the lure of shopping. There will be an interactive Santa’s Flight Academy with a 22-foot-tall sleigh as well as strolling wooden soldiers and carolers.

After months of pandemic restrictions, customers are eager to return, said Williams, who noted that the annual Santa Paws photo shoot for dogs was the mall's most well-attended ever.

While experts don't predict major supply-chain disruptions this holiday season, there are always other gift routes to take.

Luis Portes, a professor of economics at Montclair State University, said nontraditional offerings such as tickets to a show or a gift certificate to a local restaurant may be the way to go this season.

American Dream is tapping into the appeal with a selection of curated "dream gift" options for all ages.

The list includes brunch with SpongeBob, a private lounge at the water park or the chance to be an "Influencer for a Day" with a professional photographer leading your personal picture shoot through the mall.

"Ever want to star in your own social media campaign?" American Dream asks on its website. "We can’t wait to book your private experience. Packages start at $899 for a group of 10 or less."

Staff Writer Mary Chao contributed to this article.

Kristie Cattafi is a local reporter for For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


Twitter: @KristieCattafi

This article originally appeared on Black Friday sales at Paramus malls, events for shoppers