Earlier deals whack Black Friday numbers

Have retailers’ earlier and earlier deals each holiday season made Black Friday, the Super Bowl of shopping, moot?

Not quite. Some 87 million Americans still hit stores on Friday, according to a National Retail Federation survey released on Sunday. But by ramping up holiday sales events more intensely than ever, and as early as the first week of November, retailers took a big bite of what has long been the biggest shopping weekend of the year.

Total spending for the four-day weekend that started on Thanksgiving is expected to reach $50.9 billion, down 11.3% from last year’s estimated $57.4 billion, according to NRF projections.

The industry group also estimated that 133.7 million shoppers will have visited stores this weekend, below the 140.1 million it was expecting and down 5% from last year. Perhaps of greater concern and surprise, the NRF survey estimates growth in online sales, touted as the savior of the retail industry, will be flat.

On a call with reporters, NRF CEO Matt Shay said his organization was still confident retail sales would rise 4.1% for the holiday season as a whole, despite the decline in Black Friday weekend sales, saying earlier deals meant a lot of business happened before the long weekend. He also said that shoppers are still price conscious and could be holding out until later in the holiday season to see if they can snag more deals, meaning the pressure is still on retailers.

“Every day is going to be Black Friday, every minute will be Cyber Monday,” Shay said of the rest of the holiday season.

Analytics firm Retail Next’s findings were similar—a preliminary tally estimated in-store traffic fell 12.5% and that sales were down 10.3%. Unlike the NRF, RetailNext’s data excludes online sales. Shelley Kohan, the firm’s vice president for retail consulting, remained bullish about the season as a whole, saying the numbers simply reflect a dilution of Black Friday’s impact from the early deals.

“The retailers that have combined their digital and physical presence as part of one overall strategy will be the winners. They got out earlier and won those early sales,” Kohan said.

While the NRF’s store traffic data was echoed by RetailNext, the the lack of growth online forecast by the NRF seemed to contradict what other organizations have been reporting. IBM (IBM) said online sales rose 14.3% on Thanksgiving itself, and 9.5% on Black Friday, fueled in large part by a surge in mobile commerce. Data firm comScore estimated online sales on Thanksgiving Day rose 32% compared to last year to hit $1.01 billion in spending, while Black Friday (November 28) web sales rose 26% to hit $1.51 billion.

Indeed, both Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) and Target (TGT) reported record online sales for Thanksgiving. Both got out of the gate early and hard: Wal-Mart doubled the number of online specials ahead of the weekend, and offered twice as many price cuts in-store as last year. Target was similarly aggressive, with offers of free shipping throughout the season.

Many other retailers, including Amazon.com (AMZN) also started their Black Friday sales a week earlier. Indeed, IBM executive Jay Henderson said online sales rose 19% the weekend before. The earlier and longer-lasting deals is “causing some of the spending to be spread out,” he said.

Still, the NRF survey was also in contrast to what some retail analysts and mall managers reported. Nick Nicolosi, the manager at North Point Mall in Alpharetta, Ga., said that traffic there was up, and that several tenants reported higher sales. The anchors at his mall include Macy’s (M) and J.C. Penney (JCP). The Mall of America also told the Associated Press its traffic was up.

Moody’s retail analyst Charles O’Shea, who spent the weekend visiting stores in New Jersey over the weekend, said his sense was that Black Friday weekend was better than last year’s, causing him to be optimistic in part because of how well retailers have blended e-commerce with brick and mortar to adapt to new consumer behavior. But he also downplayed the importance of Black Friday weekend as an indicator for the whole Christmas period.

“This is the first leg of a marathon,” O’Shea said. “All this weekend is does is set things up for the rest of the season, to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s almost like a laboratory.”

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