COSTA MESA, Calif. — As Debra Downing drove up to the South Coast Plaza mall in the morning of Black Friday, she saw the parking lot filling up and a line of people waiting to get inside.

What You Need To Know

  • South Coast Plaza is expecting a record year in retail sales despite challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic

  • This year, Black Friday crowds at the mall were at pre-pandemic levels, a South Coast official said

  • Shopping at brick-and-mortar malls this holiday season expects to rise 8% to 10%, CBRE reported

  • The supply chain crisis is making people reconsider shopping online. Instead, they are opting to go to their local mall

The scene was a far cry from last year.

Last year, government mandates due to the coronavirus pandemic forced South Coast Plaza, the largest mall in the state, to close for five months. When the mall finally did reopen, there were 25% capacity limits.

South Coast officials had to close off some parking lots and mall entrances. The stores inside the mall also had to limit the number of people that could come inside.

Foot traffic was, obviously, down.

"It was a different type of holiday," said Debra Downing, the executive director of marketing at South Coast Plaza, in an interview with Spectrum News.

But this year, even though the mall is following other health protocols, such as requiring unvaccinated people to wear masks inside, there is no capacity limit.

And the people have come back to the brick-and-mortar mall to kick off the holiday shopping season.

"They've turned out in droves [on Black Friday]," Downing said, sitting inside a room in South Coast Plaza's VIP Access Suite.

Despite the ongoing pandemic and worries of another possible variant, people have returned to their old pre-pandemic habit of shopping in person after Thanksgiving at their local malls and retailers.

Last year, retail sales nationally were flat, according to CBRE, a commercial real estate company

However, CBRE and other retail experts predict holiday retail sales to increase by more than 8% this year to more than $800 billion. While e-commerce will make up about 20% of total holiday sales and grow 10% to 15% this year, many shoppers are making a beeline to their local malls.

Southern California malls expect to benefit from the pent-up demand. 

"This region has a lot of popular existing open-air shopping centers that have performed pretty well during much of the pandemic, which has created additional momentum going into the holidays this year," said Jamie Brooks, a first vice president at CBRE, to GlobeSt.

On Black Friday at South Coast Plaza, people waited in long lines to get inside Louis Vuitton stores, Burberry and Tiffany and Co. There was a 15-minute line to get inside the Lego store for their Black Friday deals.

There's been a large influx of in-person shopping because many people wanted to make sure they received their gifts, Downing said. The current supply chain crisis has people worried that whatever they buy online might not make it in time for Christmas day. 

Downing said a friend of hers ordered an item in July, only to receive it in October.

"All this talk about supply chain disruption, inventory challenges, and certainly, we're experiencing some of that, but the new buzz phrase is, 'see now, buy now,' Downing said. "People are here because they want to see the product. They don't want to wait for it in the mail, worried they will not get something shipped. They want to ensure they have their gifts."

If they don't get the actual item they want, they are buying gift cards.

"If they can't find what they want, people are buying gift cards now to come back and get that product later," Downing added.

Malls were among the hardest hit segment in the early days of the pandemic. Government mandates shut down some malls and or restricted the number of people that could shop inside.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the mall landscape. Malls like South Coast had to get creative and adapt to consumers' shopping habits during this time. 

Several parking spaces at South Coast Plaza are reserved for curbside pickup. Last year, South Coast Plaza set up a pavilion, a collection of 19 luxury suites inside a parking structure where customers could shop. The mall now has more than 40 personal shoppers to help customers do their shopping and deliver those items directly to their homes.

Despite South Coast and other malls' challenges during the pandemic, the crowds are back to shop in person, and Downing said she's expecting a record-setting holiday season.

"In 2021, we will have a record year," Downing said. "There's a lot of demand in the luxury segment. It just shows the power of our brand, of South Coast Plaza. All in all, we've been good."