SOUTHERN INDIANA — Even as safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic have driven up online holiday sales this year, plenty of Southern Indiana shoppers still made the trip for in-person deals on Black Friday.

In a recent study by Personal finance website Wallethub, the organization found that 77% of those surveyed planned to shop mostly online this holiday season, with 45% saying they would start early. A separate study of more than 2,000 American shoppers surveyed in early November by California-based financier Travis Credit Union found that 95% planned to shop all or mostly online — compared to 76% last year.

The Associated Press reports that online sales as of Thanksgiving Day were at $5.1 billion — up 21.5% from the same time last year. On Black Friday alone, there was a projected $10 billion in online sales — a 39% bump from last year.

But for some, shopping online doesn’t quite cut it, and many turned out this year in Southern Indiana stores.

Julia Crandall was at the Green Tree Mall Friday carrying on the tradition with some family and friends. She’s been participating in one of the busiest holiday shopping days of the year for more than two decades and said this was the slowest one she’d seen in years.

Crandall said she’s been doing online shopping all month, but when she tried to score deals online at midnight on Black Friday, most things she looked at were sold out.

“So we came here and I haven’t had a problem at all,” she said. “It’s slower than most days when I come up here. No store has been packed; we’ve been in line maybe five minutes tops.”

Chris Cullen, general manager at the mall, reported that business was steady Friday, but with smaller crowds than normal on this day — something she said the owners were expecting and hoping for in regard to safety.

“It wasn’t like years past where there’s hundreds of people waiting outside when you open the doors,” she said. “We weren’t expecting that this year and that’s healthier for them to spread it out.”

Part of the reason has been the efforts from individual stores to promote longer sales than just the traditional one-day event, Cullen said.

“I think our retailers have done a really good job of telling people that their sales started earlier and that they’ll go on beyond just today,” she said, “so that they can encourage their shoppers to spread out and we can do the social distancing and keep everyone safe.”

Among the safety protocols put in place this year are markings on the floor, signage asking people to spread out and regular cleaning of frequently touched surfaces like door handles. Some stores have staff positioned outside to help count customers, and some are selling gift cards at the door to prevent crowds.

“We’ve taken out some of the seating and spread out the rest of it so it’s six feet apart,” Cullen added. “Our security guards are handing out masks to anybody who might have forgotten their masks, and we’re just encouraging everybody to do the social distancing, but they’re doing pretty good today.”

Shopper Ann Beals said when she got to the mall with her sister around 9 a.m., “there was hardly anyone and I thought ‘this is great,’” she said. “We didn’t have to distance because there was plenty of room.”

Within an hour, that had changed as more shoppers started arriving. But although Beals ended up waiting in a long line for one store, she admitted that it was still less busy than previous years.

And despite the pandemic, Beals said she didn’t want to miss out on a favorite shopping day.

“I was determined to go and my sister took me, she was determined too,” Beals said, adding that even though she knows a lot of people plan to do more online shopping this year, “you miss something when you don’t come, I feel,” she said. “You can’t try stuff on, and you can’t have a nice day out with your sister.”

Yet some shoppers have already checked everything off their list. Tristen, a woman picking up carryout in Clarksville Friday, said she had already done all of her shopping online; she only went out for the sale at Hobby Lobby to score deals on decorations for her new house.

The woman added that she’s seen a lot more online deals this year ahead of the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season the day after Thanksgiving. She took advantage of the sales at Walmart, with something new every week for the past month. But even going out, she didn’t have to fight the crowds.

“I thought it was like a normal day at Hobby Lobby, not too crowded,” she said.

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