Now that the first big burst of Black Friday weekend shopping is done, we thought we’d check in with some top executives and analysts in the retail industry to get an early read on things so far. The weekend is expected to generate sales of $50 billion and some 140 million Americans are expected to hit the stores.
By all accounts, the peak holiday season got off to a promising start, with big jumps in online sales and shoppers in the mood to spend.
Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) said Thanksgiving, now called “Gray Thursday” by some, was its second busiest day ever for online sales after Cyber Monday last year, giving it a boost as traffic barely budged compared to two years ago. Target reported its biggest e-commerce day ever, though it is starting from a lower base.
Stores generally opened earlier than they did last year, helping business. Randy Tennison, senior general manager at Jordan Creek Town Center near Des Moines, Iowa, said opening at 6 p.m. rather than 8 p.m. meant smaller lines initially, but on the whole, the tactic drew more shoppers to the mall, whose tenants include Gap Inc and Abercrombie & Fitch.
While we won’t have a real sense of the weekend until Sunday, when the National Retail Federation publishes its estimates, things are looking up, with the caveat expressed by these experts that it’s still early.
Fortune spoke with leading figures in the world of retail to get their take.
Target (TGT) CEO Brian Cornell, who toured a store in Harlem (New York City) with Fortune on Thursday evening:
“What I’ve been most interested in is what’s in the (customer) basket. You look at the people who you know came out for a specific, but then they’ve actually taken the time to shop other categories, which is really important. The fear here is seeing baskets or carts with one item.”
What will be your gauge of whether the holiday season was a success?
“Beyond the comparable sales number, the EPS (earning per share) number, traffic- both visits to our stores, and visits to our sites- this is about driving traffic, making sure they are shopping at Target, and coming back.”
Macy’s (M) CEO Terry Lundgren, on what people are buying, and traffic trends:
“So far people, people are gravitating to the ‘doorbusters’ — that has got their attention. There’s so much information online, so they’re doing that research and going right for those doorbusters.”
“We’ll have to see if it (traffic increase) continues. What’s most important is ‘conversion’, which is really about converting traffic into sales, more than traffic itself.”
Toys ‘R’ Us U.S. President Hank Mullany, on a 5 p.m. opening on Thanksgiving:
“We did it a year ago and did it yesterday, and the consumer response was overwhelmingly positive.” Consumers were “shopping the entire store, not just shopping our specials,” he added.
(Read more from Fortune’s interview with Mullany here.)
GameStop president Tony Bartel on whether he felt penalized by opening at midnight while other non-retailers like Target were open earlier on Thanksgiving:
“The level of service in our stores and availability of a deep inventory of games gives us an advantage as a specialty retailer and offsets any effect of other retailers opening earlier.”
Keith Herbert, SVP Stores, Gap North America:
“People are gravitating toward Gap classics, like denim, sweaters, hoodies.”
“Footsteps are up this year,” he added, noting that a new feature that allows shoppers to order online while in a store has helped.
Moody’s retail analyst Charlie O’Shea:
“If you don’t open, your competition will open and it will be a zero-sum game. If they go to Target they won’t to go Walmart, and vice-versa. You have to protect your turf.”
NPD Group Chief Industry Analyst Marshal Cohen:
“Overall, we’re seeing a good start to the weekend but it’s just a beginning — still, it was busier than expected.”
“Apparel store [discounts] were all at 50% — they’re very aggressive. It’s a sign of concern about inventory buildup after a disappointing third-quarter.”
“There’s more self-purchasing. If they’re buying for themselves, it’s not part of their holiday budget, so this means there is plenty more shopping to come.”
Customer Growth Partners president Craig Johnson:
“The net effect of a lot of earlier openings was a pull forward of sales that hollowed out shopping this morning — it cannibalized a lot of the early-morning shopping that we’d see a few years ago. Stores were dead this morning at 7 a.m. All this demand does not increase the demand pool.”
(Fortune’s John Kell contributed reporting to this article.)