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Fewer Americans shopped during Thanksgiving weekend than last year

Analysts say it remains to be seen whether the omicron variant — news of which broke just before Black Friday — will weigh on holiday retail sales

Shoppers swarm the Westfield Garden State Plaza mall on Black Friday in Paramus, N.J. Some 105 million Americans shopped in-store from Thanksgiving though Cyber Monday, compared with 90 million last year, according to the National Retail Federation. (Bloomberg)

Fewer Americans shopped during Thanksgiving weekend than they did last year, but more of them did so in person, according to data released Tuesday.

An estimated 180 million Americans shopped in stores or online in the five days from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday, down from 186 million last year and 190 million in 2019, the National Retail Federation (NRF) said. That drop is partly a reflection of people starting their holiday shopping earlier, as evidenced by the significant rise in retail sales recorded in October. Analysts say it remains to be seen whether the new omicron variant of the coronavirus — news of which broke just before Black Friday — will weigh on holiday shopping.

“A lot of consumers are holding their breath, trying to figure out what’s going on with the omicron variant,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “But the fact that there is a variant throws uncertainty into the mix — and uncertainty isn’t great for consumers or retailers.”

This Black Friday, shoppers are back in malls

The holiday season is crucial for retailers, which have been dogged by supply chain hiccups and labor shortages. Many of the nation’s largest chains have spent millions chartering ships and planes to get inventory on time.

Even then, experts say wild cards remain. Many consumers are still hesitant to shop in stores and malls, particularly as cities and counties do away with mask mandates and other coronavirus precautions, according to Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst for Forrester.

“Things were starting to improve for retailers, but that could change if this new variant starts scaring people away,” she said.

Though the number of people shopping in person ticked up from last year, the figure is markedly lower than it was before the pandemic. Some 105 million Americans hit stores Thursday through Monday, compared with 90 million last year and 124 million in 2019. There were 130 million online shoppers, a 10 percent drop from the 145 million recorded in 2020.

“The obvious [trend] here is that consumers are starting earlier than ever,” NRF chief executive Matthew Shay said in a call with reporters. “The Thanksgiving weekend, and Black Friday in particular, are closer to halftime now than the kickoff.”

He added that concerns over a new variant could bode well for retailers if shoppers shift spending away from experiences — such as dining out, traveling or going to the theater — to goods.

Clothing and toys were among the most-purchased categories during the five-day weekend, followed by gift cards and books, movies and video games. Shoppers spent an average of $301 on holiday gifts, decor, clothing and toys, down from last year’s $312, according to the NRF.

Overall, the trade group is forecasting that holiday sales will grow as much as 10.5 percent from last year, to a record $859 billion.

Americans are unhappy about the economy but still spending big

Rising prices and early holiday shopping lifted retail sales 1.7 percent in October, but economists say the spike probably contributed to cooler Black Friday and Cyber Monday spending. Shoppers spent $33.9 billion online over the five-day weekend, a 1.4 percent drop from last year, according to Adobe Analytics. Analysts there said weak discounts and high rates of out-of-stock goods may have been contributing factors.

“With early deals in October, consumers were not waiting around for discounts on big shopping days like Cyber Monday and Black Friday,” said Taylor Schreiner, director of Adobe Digital Insights.