After a year marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are returning to area malls in advance of the holiday shopping season. 

“Shoppers started shopping earlier,” said Gene Satern, senior general manager of the Mall of Louisiana in Baton Rouge. “We’re seeing traffic numbers back to where they used to be.”

At Lakeside Shopping Center in Metairie, tenants are reporting sales being back or exceeding 2019 numbers, said Erin Graham, marketing director. "We've been really happy with our traffic," she said. 

The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk is also seeing a marked increase in foot traffic, despite seeing business thrown off track because of Hurricane Ida. The downtown mall is heavily dependent on tourist business and the storm led to the cancellation of some big conventions and delayed the return of cruise ships to New Orleans, said Kandyse Aubé, marketing manager for the Outlet Collection.

But the number of shoppers started to go up in October, when the cruise lines and convention business returned, she said. The center is planning "a hard push" marketingwise for Black Friday, with free hot chocolate from Cafe du Monde and live music.

Aubé said she will be personally handing out coupons to shoppers. "It's just to give a little pep in your step while you're looking for deals," she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused drastic changes to the holiday shopping season in 2020.

To reduce crowd sizes, retailers were less aggressive about extending store hours. So that meant big box stores and shopping malls didn’t open on Thanksgiving or have Black Friday doorbuster sales. The big sales went on for weeks online instead of a for a few hours in a store.

Many shoppers wanted to avoid crowds, and stores were forced to reduce the number of customers who could be inside at one time. That made online shopping more popular than ever. For people who still wanted to venture out to get gifts, retailers expanded contactless curbside pickup services.

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Vaccines have caused the number of COVID-19 cases to drastically drop, so local government and retailers have eased capacity and masking mandates. But this holiday season, stores are keeping the changes they put in place last year.

Customers liked how deals were spread across the month of November, with multiple events offering savings, said Leigh Stidham, a Walmart spokesperson. So the retail giant is bringing the extended deals back.

“This gives customers more options on when and how they shop,” Stidham said. She noted that many people don’t want to interrupt family time around Thanksgiving to run out for a shopping trip.

Walmart had offered online shopping and curbside pickup for years, but the pandemic accelerated the adaptation of those programs, Stidham said. A lot of customers have stuck around with those new methods of shopping, even though the pandemic has waned.

Inflation is an issue this year, due to supply chain disruptions and increased demand for goods after consumer spending was crimped by the pandemic. Gary Wagner, the Acadiana business economist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said for goods the 30-year inflation rate has been 0.6%. Over the last six months, the rate has gone up to about 6%, which is 10 to 12 times higher than normal.

"That looks like pretty significant inflation," he said.   

But even with higher prices, consumer spending is expected to hold steady this holiday season. Ryan Pecot, a senior retail and development executive for Stirling Properties in Lafayette, said the savings rate was at an all-time high during 2020, when people were largely confined at home by the pandemic. Now that life is returning to normal, people are spending the money they saved. 

"They enjoy spending. That’s what Americans do. That’s our drug of choice," Pecot said.

Consumers said they plan on spending $997 on gifts, holiday items such as food, decorations and cards this season, according to a survey taken in late October by the National Retail Federation. That’s the same amount as in 2020 and down slightly from the pre-pandemic high of $1,048 in 2019. The NRF said the spending drop was due to fewer nongift purchases customers are making for themselves or their families.

While holiday spending is expected to hold steady, customers are getting an early start on buying gifts, due to concerns about supply chain disruptions. The NRF survey found that 49% of shoppers said they would start browsing and buying presents before November, up from 42% a year ago. Customers said they wanted to get an early start on getting gifts to avoid the stress of last-minute shopping and to ensure they get the presents family and friends want.

Adam Daigle and Tony McAuley contributed to this report.

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