By CBSLA Staff

COMMERCE (CBSLA) — Shoppers are back in full force at Southern California retail centers, looking for the best deals on Black Friday, otherwise known as the start of the holiday season.

The pandemic dampened last year’s usual Black Friday excitement, and many stores made the decision to keep their doors closed on Thanksgiving Day and were forced to severely limit their capacity when they did open in order to allow for social distancing between shoppers. This year, most of those precautions have been thrown out the window, with shoppers eager to spend money that went unspent during pandemic lockdowns.

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“Christmas is around the corner, and there’s great deals,” a shopper named Marcus said. He arrived at the Citadel Outlets at 2 a.m., and was waiting in line with dozens of other people to get into Coach at 6 a.m.

According to a survey for the National Retail Federation, 158.3 million plan to shop from Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday, compared to 156.6 million in 2020 and 165.3 million in 2019.

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Public health officials are quick to remind people the pandemic is not over by any means, and cases are on the rise in many parts of California and across the nation where vaccination rates remain low. But while masked shoppers did not appear to be overly concerned about the chances of catching COVID-19 while browsing merchandise at local stores, there was still a measure of concern over the recent rash of flash mob robberies that have struck several high-end shops over the past couple of weeks.

“It’s been a rough year — I deserve it, she deserves it, my sister deserves it,” said Barbara Thomas, who was treating herself to a shopping spree on Black Friday. “I didn’t even care about how much I spent today honestly.”

Earlier this week, five people ran into Nordstrom’s at the Westfield Topanga mall and grabbed at least seven high-end handbags before getting away in a Ford Mustang. Last week, a similar group ran into a Nordstrom store at The Grove in West Los Angeles, smashed storefront windows with a sledgehammer, and ransacked the store; while up in Northern California, a similar smash-and-grab spree ravaged stores in San Francisco’s Union Square.

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With big crowds expected at local malls, the LAPD said it would be “dedicating resources to some of these higher-end locations to deter further acts of violence,” LAPD Chief Michel Moore told the police commission at its Tuesday meeting.