Offline Retail Off on Thanksgiving Weekend; NRF Says Shoppers Increase

Though market researchers who follow e-commerce gave an upbeat assessment of online activity over the Thanksgiving weekend, those tagging store-based retail were not impressed.

Despite heavily publicized promotions and stores opening earlier than usual on Black Friday, media accounts of the day said store traffic petered out once the early-bird specials were done.

With heavy discounting by non-mall retailers combined with the extended shopping season in 2005, consumers may not feel the pressure to shop early this holiday season, according to ShopperTrak RCT Corp., a Chicago market researcher that tracks sales at more than 45,000 retail stores nationwide.

Last year, Black Friday was the second busiest day of the holiday shopping season, falling just behind the Saturday before Christmas. It may happen this year, too. ShopperTrak said Nov. 26 that Black Friday’s sales fell 0.9 percent to $8.01 billion from last year. Sales in the South and Midwest were good compared to other regions.

“Although the Black Friday number is a bit flat, this may be misleading as we're comparing this to a very strong 2004 performance,” Michael Niemira, chief economist and director of research for the International Council of Shopping Centers and consultant to ShopperTrak, said in a statement. “While Black Friday is important to retailers, it's not always the best indicator. … With the extra Saturday this season, added to the continued influence of high energy prices, the consumer may just be waiting until later to begin their holiday spending.”

Though Black Friday is vital to retailers, analysts don’t always regard it as a bellwether for the rest of the holiday season.

Major retailers optimistic. But this Black Friday certainly has emboldened Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to estimate that stores open at least a year will report a 4.3 percent sales increase.

Discounted television sets and DVD players are said to have lured shoppers to Wal-Mart stores nationwide. The Bentonville, AR-based retailer learned from last year’s Black Friday when its discounts were not deep enough and sales suffered.

JC Penney Co. Inc. and Toys “R” Us Inc. are also said to have been pleased with the traffic and sales over this Thanksgiving weekend.

Meanwhile, the retail industry’s leading lobby in Washington didn’t share ShopperTrak’s assessment. A survey by Bigresearch for the National Retail Federation claimed 145 million shoppers flocked to stores and Web sites over the Thanksgiving weekend for popular electronics, clothing and books. This was up from 133 million last year.

The survey, which polled consumers Nov. 25-26, said the average shopper spent $302.81 this weekend. The total weekend spending for all consumers was estimated at $27.8 billion, up 21.9 percent from last year’s $22.8 billion.

So giddy was NRF’s appraisal of the Nov. 24-27 retail store traffic that it added the word “Blockbuster” in its Nov. 27 news release’s headline. It is now projecting 58.9 million consumers will shop online today from work or at home on what is now being promoted as Cyber Monday.

“By offering incredible discounts, retailers were able to bring consumers to the stores who otherwise would have stayed in bed,” Phil Rist, vice president of strategy at Bigresearch, said in a statement about the weekend. “The deals were so enticing that many consumers abandoned their shopping lists and started buying for themselves.”

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