The bleak scene was emblematic of the difficult challenges confronting many brick and mortar retailers, which are struggling to figure out how to survive Amazon’s seemingly unstoppable march to dominate the American wallet.
Analysts say retailers are expected to close more stores this year than at any time since the 2008 recession. The pressure from e-commerce, coupled with many retailers loading up on debt during better days, has led to a string of bankruptcies this year. Thousands of retail workers have lost their jobs. Overall employment in the retail industry has been declining since July — which economists say is highly unusual given that the economy is relatively strong.
All the ingredients are in place for a strong shopping season — low unemployment, a soaring stock market, and high consumer confidence. Holiday sales are projected to increase by as much as 4 percent from a year ago, to $682 billion, according to the National Retail Federation.
And yet these positive conditions come at a vulnerable time for many retailers, as they try to adjust their business model from a legacy of operating hundreds of stores in suburban malls to a more adept online operation.
Sears is determined to survive the turmoil, despite falling sales and a stock price that now trades for less than $4.
The retailer has closed more than 150 Sears stores and Kmarts, which the company also owns. A Sears spokesman said stores that are in the process of being closed, like the one in Phillipsburg, are not a “fair representation of a current Sears shopping experience.”
Even as Sears is closing stores, the company is opening some new ones and renovating others to make them smaller and more attractive. The company has a deal with Uber in which drivers receive significant discounts at Sears.
One of the company’s remodeled stores, in Wayne, N.J., was bustling on Friday morning. An employee in a red vest greeted shoppers at the door, handing out a circular showcasing the biggest deals. By noon, the checkout line was wrapped around racks of one-piece fleece pajamas and winter coats.
As it works on a turnaround, Sears is paying down its debt, cutting costs and integrating its online and bricks and mortar operations to give customers more choices in how they shop.
“We are fighting like hell,” the Sears chairman, Edward Lampert, said in a statement earlier this year.
One cost-cutting measure is closing stores. Sears announced earlier this month that it was closing the Phillipsburg store. When that store opened at 7 a.m. for its last Black Friday, the parking lot out front was empty — except for a minivan and a white pickup truck.
A man in a hooded sweatshirt stood next to the truck, then hurried inside.
Red and yellow banners reading “Store Closing Sale” and “Nothing Held Back” hung from the ceiling.
Throughout the store, tables of shirts, pants and sweaters were neatly arranged and most of them fully stocked. A display of patriotic-themed shirts featuring wolves and eagles were selling for 40 percent off. Snowmen scarves, originally $5.99, were selling for about $3.
The scarves caught the eye of Elaine Freeman, who was browsing for Christmas gifts with her sister Faith, while their car was being serviced at the Sears automotive center.
The sisters grew up coming to the Sears with their parents, and they wanted to show their loyalty by shopping there one last Black Friday.
Ms. Freeman, who works at a medical billing firm, said she has always been able to buy things at Sears that she cannot find at other large retailers. Just this week, she said, her niece needed a roasting pan large enough for the turkey she was planning to cook for Thanksgiving.
“It’s Black Friday, people are shopping elsewhere, but we are choosing to be here,’’ Ms. Freeman said.
At around 7:45 a.m., Tyler Kwiecinski, 21, and Zoe Vallese, 19, wandered into the store and headed toward the appliance section. For decades, Sears has built a loyal customer base attracted to its Kenmore brands of stoves, microwaves and air-conditioners.
But these young friends had never been inside a Sears — at least not that they could remember. They had gotten up early that morning to hit GameStop, a video game store at the other end of the mall, and were curious when they saw the big yellow “Store Closing’’ sign outside Sears.
“My dad explained to me that Sears was like Walmart before Walmart arrived,’’ said Mr. Kwiecinski, who left without buying anything.
Not far from the appliances was a stand of artificial Christmas trees of different varieties like the “Westchester Slim Cashmere Pine.” One of the trees was spinning, as its white lights blinked. They were all on sale for 30 percent off.
Nancy Hartman and her daughter Jennifer Verdicchio have shopped at Sears on Black Friday for as long as they can remember. On Friday, Ms. Hartman peered into one of the empty, darkened storefronts next to the Sears.
“I took my grandson to this mall recently and he asked me ‘Nana, why are the stores closing?’” Ms. Hartman said. “It’s depressing.”
About 65 miles away from the Phillipsburg Mall, the Sears in Wayne was in a different world. The store has new merchandising displays, checkout counters and sleek lighting. The building exterior has fresh white and blue signage.
Victoria Setzer shopped for boys’ clothing in the Wayne store on Friday around noon. Her parents met at a Sears in the 1960s, while her mother was working for the catalog.
“There is so much history and tradition, it’s a piece of Americana,’’ Ms. Setzer said.
But her loyalty to Sears has been tested after her recently purchased Kenmore refrigerator needed repairs twice.
“I hope it survives,” she said. “But I don’t know if they can.”
An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect name for a video game store at the Phillipsburg Mall in New Jersey. It is GameStop, not Game Stopper.