Mall of America, others took a stand against Thanksgiving openings — it seems to have paid off

Crowds fill the Fayette Mall for Black Friday shopping, November 25, 2016.
CBL & Associates
Crowds fill the Fayette Mall for Black Friday shopping, November 25, 2016.

More than 1,500 shoppers lined up outside of the Mall of America's north entrance near Minneapolis, ahead of its 5 a.m. opening on Black Friday.

It was the first time in five years that the megamall kicked off the annual sales event the day after Thanksgiving, and the crowds — spread out across the property's 16 entrances — seemed bigger than last year, when it opened on the holiday, Dan Jasper, a spokesman for the mall, told CNBC.

With all but three of the property's more than 520 stores opening at the same time, it drew a larger wave of initial traffic thousands of people deep, as opposed to last year's scattered visits that reflected gradual store openings.

The property also brought back doorbuster giveaways — something it hadn't done in "quite a while" — handing out the first of what will be 10,000 scratch offs this weekend. Prizes include vacations, handbags and designer scarves.

"The energy has been extremely high," Jasper said. "It's a completely different vibe than the past few years."

One hour later, some 700 people were waiting outside of CBL & Associates' Fayette Mall, in Lexington, Kentucky, for its 6 a.m. opening. It was one of more than 70 CBL shopping centers that stayed closed on Thanksgiving Day — a change from last year — and it greeted larger, more excited crowds.

Like the Mall of America, CBL handed out gift cards and goody bags — anywhere from 250 to 1,000, depending on the location — at its malls. At some of its properties, the giveaways disappeared within five minutes, CEO Stephen Lebovitz told CNBC.

"People were lining up at 3 a.m. at some places," he said. "The traffic is definitely more than it was last year so far this morning."

At a time when most retailers and shopping centers are pushing their Black Friday deals earlier, the Mall of America and CBL made headlines for taking the opposite approach. The Mall of America received letters from shoppers in the U.S. and overseas, thanking it for taking a stand, Jasper said.

"The coolest thing is from the employees," he said. "They are just so grateful that they got to spend the day with their family."

The benefit of Thanksgiving openings is hotly debated among many in the industry. While many argue that they simply spread out sales, others point to the fact that certain shoppers only head out that day — meaning a retailer that's closed could lose out on sales.

Indeed, early reads on Thanksgiving traffic have been mostly positive, with stores like Macy's and J.C. Penney seeing hundreds or thousands of shoppers lining up for the initial rush. Macy's said Thursday that its Herald Square flagship welcomed 16,000 shoppers when it opened at 5 p.m. Thanksgiving Day, 1,000 more than last year.

Those types of anchor stores opened on Thanksgiving Day at CBL's properties, because they had exterior entrances. There, it was "business as usual," Lebovitz said. The company's portfolio is also somewhat insulated by its footprint, as its malls are often the only game in town. That helps it avoid losing sales to a competing property.

CBL also noted that by opening on Black Friday instead of Thanksgiving, its centers were filled with more "true shoppers" carrying around bags, versus teenagers simply strolling around. It will also avoid the early morning lull that happened after 2 a.m., Lebovitz said.

In all, the CEO said he's hopeful that the buzz surrounding its decision to close on Thanksgiving will help its sales and traffic meet or exceed last year's performance over the two-day stretch.

"We feel really confident," he said. "If we get the results that we think we will and the retailers are on board with us we'll continue to do this."

The same goes for the Mall of America, where Jasper said management is looking for sales and traffic to come in flat or increase compared with last year. The megamall typically attracts 400,000 shoppers over the Black Friday weekend, with Friday being the busiest day.

Like CBL, its unique place in the market should help prevent the 5.6 million-square-foot property from losing sales to other centers. Jasper said electronics stores like Best Buy, specialty athletic wear shops like Lululemon and Athleta, and luxury stores seemed to be performing well in the early hours.

"I fully anticipate this is a tradition we're going to maintain," Jasper said about staying closed on Thanksgiving.

Some 137.4 million people are expected to shop over the four-day Thanksgiving stretch, with roughly three-fourths of them planning to do so on Black Friday, according to a National Retail Federation consumer survey. That compares with 21 percent who said they would shop on Thanksgiving Day.