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Shoppers who felt brave enough to search for deals during the pandemic hit stores Friday for traditional day-after-Thanksgiving promotions, but gone were predawn throngs that descended on big-box stores in years past.

Still, even with smaller crowds than on normal Black Fridays, the Mall of America, Ridgedale Center and other shopping centers showed signs of life as people looked for gifts or just a glimpse of normalcy.

“We are just here for tradition,” said Angela Dahlin, 48, of Ramsey, who dressed in holiday pajamas and a Christmas tree headband to shop with her daughter at Ridgedale Center. “I have already done a lot of shopping online.”

The day after Thanksgiving — the traditional kickoff to retailers’ crucial holiday shopping season — has become its own holiday of sorts with devout deal searchers usually waking up early to snag sales available for a limited time. In recent years, Black Friday had even overtaken the Thanksgiving holiday with early blockbusters.

But with cases of COVID-19 surging in Minnesota and across the country, many retailers such as Twin Cities-based Target and Best Buy veered from their usual holiday game plans, spreading out their sales over several weeks and closing on Thanksgiving as they tried to discourage crowds from rushing to stores all at once.

They also tried to lure customers online, with some success. Shoppers spent a record $5.1 billion online on Thanksgiving Day, according to Adobe Analytics, which expects more record-breaking sales in the days ahead.

Still, Thanksgiving’s online sales fell about $1 billion lower than Adobe Analytics’ most recent estimates, a sign that customers may be waiting for better deals on Cyber Monday, or holding onto their cash amid job uncertainties caused by the pandemic.

The holiday spending “didn’t come with the kind of aggressive growth rate we’ve seen with the start of the pandemic,” said Taylor Schreiner, director at Adobe Digital Insights.

In the Twin Cities, the shopping day appeared to start off slowly. While there was a socially distanced line of customers that greeted Best Buy workers in Richfield, it was much smaller than in past years.

And while the Walmart in West St. Paul was staffed for a morning surge, after it threw open its doors only a trickle of shoppers were moving about.

One of those up before the sun was Monse Bravo, 22, of St. Paul, who was at Walmart with her cousins.

“I don’t like doing it online,” she said about Black Friday shopping. “Sometimes you don’t get all your items.”

She grabbed pillows, a mixing set for $10 and nonstick skillets. She already bought a 55-inch TV — a normal Black Friday prize — two weeks ago.

Ridgedale Center general manager Joan Suko had started the day with low expectations. “We are just hoping for a little bit stronger than a normal day,” she said about traffic soon after opening. But by late afternoon, Suko said foot traffic was higher than expected.

The parking lot had been at least 80% full all afternoon, she said.

Mall of America traffic was down 60 to 65% from last year’s Black Friday, but the Bloomington mall felt livelier than it had since it reopened after a state-mandated shutdown in the spring.

As workers limited the capacity inside stores, lines snaked around storefronts at popular gift destinations like Nespresso and Amazon 4-star as well as youth magnets like Aerie and Hot Topic.

Adam Watson, 34, and son Jayden, 13, were taking a break sitting on the windowsill outside the UGG shoe store after they had already dropped off a load of shopping bags to their hotel room at the mall’s Radisson Blu.

“I was telling him that it’s normally crazier than this,” Watson said about the crowds.

Watson, who was in town from Florida, said the mall and stores have made him comfortable to bring his son out.

“They have been pretty thorough,” he said. “I don’t feel like it’s unsafe.”

While retail stores in Minnesota could operate at full capacity with health precautions, many stores still monitored and restricted capacity out of an abundance of caution Friday. The Minnesota Health Department on Friday reported 101 new deaths from COVID-19 — shattering the previous one-day high of 72 fatalities.

The Mall of America and the majority of its tenants have restricted capacity to 50%.

Many retailers had put in place other measures to encourage social distancing. Customers were able wait in digital queues instead of physical lines inside stores. They also bolstered contactless shopping options, such as drive-up orders, and worked on improving online and mobile capabilities.

Across the Minnesota River from the Mall of America, the parking lots were packed at the open-air Twin Cities Premium Outlets in Eagan, with lines forming for well-known brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Vera Bradley.

Analysts and retail experts also expected consumers to continue shopping at home during what is a long weekend for many workers.

“Many consumers are still holding off on remaining gift purchases until [Black Friday] and Cyber Monday in hopes of scoring the best deals,” Schreiner, of Adobe Digital Insights, said in an e-mail.

Target said it is hoping consumers will go that route. It has beefed up deals for Cyber Monday, which will start Sunday, and has added time-limited flash sales.

The Minneapolis-based retailer said Friday that customers ordered millions more items through same-day pickup and delivery services than during the same time last year — with some of the most popular items being Apple AirPods and the New Super Mario Bros. game for the Nintendo Switch. Instant Pots, toasters, family games and apparel also were top sellers through same-day services.

Naveen Jaggi, president of JLL Retail Advisory Services, said the early discounting and consumers’ increasing comfort with shopping online will continue to change the rhythms of this holiday season, with retailers offering three or four waves of Christmas holiday deal-making.

“As a result we’ll see an early shopping season go from early November to the end of January, and we’ll see this wave of promotions to draw people into the store or into their website,” he said.

Staff writer Kavita Kumar, the Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335