||For a Weekend, at Least, Retailers See Record Numbers
Spurred by aggressive promotions from retailers, American consumers opened their wallets over the holiday weekend in a way they had not since before the recession, setting records in sales and traffic.
The National Retail Federation said Sunday that spending per shopper surged 9.1 percent over last year -- the biggest increase since 2006 -- to an average of almost $400 a customer. In all, 6.6 percent more shoppers visited stores on the Thanksgiving weekend than last year.
"American consumers have been taking a deep breath and making a decision that it's O.K. to go shopping again," despite the high unemployment rate and other signs of caution, said Ellen Davis, vice president at the National Retail Federation.
Numbers from ShopperTrak, a consumer research service, showed equally strong results, with in-store sales on Friday rising by 6.6 percent over last year's Thanksgiving Friday to $11.4 billion.
Yet there were signs the gains might not last. Analysts said that traffic to stores seemed to slow through the weekend, suggesting that the big start to the holiday season might peter out over time. And shoppers were using credit cards in large numbers, mall owners and analysts said, signaling that consumers were willing to sacrifice savings more than last year, when they paid with cash more frequently.
"With consumers, it's emotional, so they might feel they need Christmas this year," said Margaret Taylor, vice president and senior credit officer in the corporate finance group at Moody's Investors Service. "They could be willing to take on more credit."
Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities, said in a note to clients that he expected that "consumers will dig into savings" or "temporarily tack on a little more debt" during the holidays.
Retailers hardly objected. Total spending, including online sales, reached an estimated $52.4 billion Thursday through Sunday, the National Retail Federation said. About 35 percent of that total was spent online, slightly higher than last year, the federation said, suggesting that online retailers' attempts to attract in-store shoppers worked well.
Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak, noted that the day after Thanksgiving, usually the year's biggest sales day, is "one day in a 60-day holiday season." Still, he said, "what we do know is without a strong start to the season it's pretty hard to have a good season."
Given the tight budgets of customers, major retailers aggressively wooed shoppers, moving back opening hours to midnight on Thanksgiving or earlier. It seems to have worked, attracting more shoppers and giving them more hours on Friday to spend.
Almost a quarter of people who went shopping the Friday after Thanksgiving were in stores by midnight Thursday, the federation found. Among 18- to 34-year-olds who went shopping, that percentage was higher -- 36.7 percent -- than it was among 35- to 54-year-olds, of whom 23.5 percent were in stores by midnight.
"Early Black Friday openings and Thanksgiving-night openings are simply to get a larger share of the customer's wallet,” Ms. Davis said, adding that research showed that customers tend to spend more at their first stop than at subsequent ones.
Though the longer Friday hours helped bump up sales, some analysts said they might have taken away from steady shopping through the weekend.
"Our perspective is that Black Friday peaked early this year and then lost some of its luster," said Alison Jatlow Levy, a retail strategist at the consulting firm Kurt Salmon. On Saturday, "the malls felt like an average busy Saturday, but not like a Black Friday extravaganza."
At the midnight opening of Macy's Herald Square on Thanksgiving, about 9,000 customers were in line, up from 7,000 last year. Most looked quite young, many saying they had come for the late-night spectacle rather than for specific deals.
Kester Richards, 18, was at the front of the line and said he had waited four hours. He said he was a regular Macy's shopper and was looking for Ralph Lauren clothes, but had never been to Black Friday before.
Kyun Il Bae, 21, and In Jung Choi, 21, South Korean students studying in New York State, said they had heard about the event and wanted to see what it was like. "I just like the atmosphere," Mr. Bae said. "It's a popular place, and I heard this is crazy." Later, in the store, Mr. Bae did not seem as enthusiastic. He shrugged when asked if he had found any good deals, and looked more exhausted than invigorated.
The midnight openings also may have contributed to the unusually high number of men who were in stores. More men than women shopped throughout the weekend, and they spent more per person, according to the retail federation.
"Men really aren't willing to pull themselves out of bed at 4 a.m. for a bargain, but they will go" late at night, Ms. Davis said. "Men are increasingly budget-focused, and like the idea of looking for good deals."
Stores selling to people of different income levels chose different tactics on Friday, with many of the low- and middle-income retailers opening early with "door-buster" discounts, and the luxury stores moving back their opening times by just an hour or two. Still, Mr. Martin said, sales "were pretty good across all manner of retailers."
According to the federation, department stores and discounters were the most popular destinations over the weekend, followed by electronics stores.
Shoppers interviewed Thursday night and Friday sounded as if they were on tight budgets, and that drove them to stores.
Amanda Ponce, 40, stood outside a Target in downtown Chicago, an Xbox 360 for her 8-year-old daughter on her shopping list. At $139.99, marked down from $199.99, the savings were crucial this year, she said, since she will be buying fewer presents.
"We've had a lot harder time living the same lifestyle that we lived," she said, saying that her husband, a marketing consultant, had been taking on extra work. "We're focusing more on specifically what she wants instead of an abundance of gifts. Things she'll actually use and play with."
At a J.C. Penney in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Maria Aguilar was not buying presents -- she had come in for deals on a coffeepot and a griddle.
"We are definitely cutting back," said Ms. Aguilar, 45, an instructional assistant from Norco, Calif. She said that this year, her family was buying gifts for "just the little ones, just the children."
(Source: The New York Times, 11/28/11)
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