AUBURN — Tashia Brown walked two miles to Walmart with her 12-year-old niece at 10 p.m. Thursday, to claim the first spot in line for Black Friday.

They waited for doors to open at midnight. And waited. And waited.

At almost 2 a.m., an employee poked their head out — they wouldn’t open until 5.

No matter. Her niece voted to stay and took a nap on the sidewalk.

“I’m a single mother of two little ones, so I’m used to the all hours of the night or not getting sleep, so it was nothing for me,” said Brown of Auburn, who finished her children’s Christmas shopping when the doors finally opened.

Brown was the diehard exception in Auburn this Black Friday. Lines were sparse with no one out front of either Kohl’s or JCPenney a half-hour before the late openings, which were at 5 a.m. for the second year in a row. The crowd at Walmart was a shadow of years’ past.

One Kohl’s employee commented that the store had a lot of online orders to fill, while a Walmart employee said the old Black Friday days were a thing of the past.

The Auburn Mall was quiet, too, at 7:30 a.m.

Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine, said retailers of all shapes and sizes have evolved from the traditional Black Friday doorbuster deal, advertising sales online, for a longer period and well in advance.

That may keep more would-be shivering crowds home in 2021, but it’s not expected to cool the season.

The National Retail Federation has forecast holiday sales growing between 8.5% to 10.5% nationally this year over last year.

“That would be the biggest increase that I am aware of and definitely the biggest expected increase in my role with (the) Retail Association of Maine for the last 14 years,” said Picard. “So it is certainly predicted to be a strong, above-average year nationally and I hope Maine follows that trend.”

Weather is always a wildcard here, he said. “An ill-timed ice storm, for example, right before Christmas can dramatically impact last-minute purchasing that cannot be shifted to other dates.”

Picard started encouraging shoppers to start getting out in September with 100 days left to Christmas due to nagging issues with supply chain and worker shortages. He feels like people largely heeded that advice.

“Supply chain issues are prevalent and significant,” he said. “I wish I could pinpoint a specific product or category that is being impacted more than others, but it’s really all over the map. In some cases, the products are available, but they are having a hard time finding their way to store shelves. Other times, it’s the lack of raw materials to manufacture the goods. Most often, we are hearing that a retailer may only get a portion of an expected order, which makes it hard to communicate with customers about availability and the timing of when restocks may happen.”

His other advice for the next month: If you want it and see it, buy it.

“(There are) no guarantees it will still be available tomorrow or next week,” Picard said. “Also, continue to practice kindness toward retail employees and other shoppers. It’s been a long couple of years with so much stress in the world. No need to add to it. Be kind and remember the true meaning of the holidays.”

The National Retail Federation annual survey found 66% of holiday shoppers were expected to shop Thanksgiving weekend.

Locally, Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer and Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque were encouraging residents to “shop small” during the holidays, proclaiming Saturday, Nov. 27, as Small Business Saturday to highlight the significance of supporting independently owned, local businesses.

Specifically for Black Friday, 64% of holiday shoppers nationally anticipated shopping in stores versus online compared to 51% last year.

Mary LaFontaine of Auburn said she’s been heading out on Black Friday for about 25 years and that this year was no different.

“For me, it’s the first day that I start celebrating the Christmas season,” she said. “It’s the first day I let myself hear Christmas music, despite it being played for weeks prior. It’s the one day a year that I don’t mind crowds. I don’t get anxious about any particular item; I let others take what they need and I work around them. It’s really not about the shopping, although I shop! It really is about the start of the Christmas season. It’s a treat for myself.”

Some people, however, were planning to avoid any shopping on Black Friday. “I would rather battle Klingons,” quipped Drew Desjardins of Lewiston.

Joe Philippon of Lewiston said he was watching “The Nightmare Before Christmas” with his child and avoiding Christmas shopping, but not able to avoid the coming snow.

“Sadly, took the snowblower and shovels out to prep,” he said.

Brown, who found herself unexpectedly waiting for seven hours in front of the Auburn Walmart, said keeping a good attitude was key.

This was her niece’s first time Black Friday shopping and Brown said she was most concerned about her being too tired or too cold, but she wasn’t fazed.

“She found a nice sweater she wanted so I got it for her for being a trouper and hanging out in the cold,” she said.

Brown’s a regular Black Friday shopper and does it on years she can find an overnight babysitter. She said she felt like the deals are better in-person.

She and her niece caught the city bus back home and were already talking Black Friday plans for next year.

“I told her, it’s a win-win situation: You could plan it closer to the time and then it could be millions of people or you could leave early and you just tough it out,” Brown said. “You make it a negative situation, then your time and everything is going to be more stressful on you. You stick with a positive attitude, it goes by a lot faster.”

Staff photographer Daryn Slover contributed to this story.

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