Fewer consumers hit the stores or went online this Thanksgiving weekend, a sign that Black Friday’s bloat into days and even weeks of promotions may be creating less urgency around the events that many retailers consider the kickoff to the holiday shopping season.
The National Retail Federation reported that 55.1 percent of consumers shopped between Thursday and Sunday, according to a survey it conducted over the weekend. That is down from 58.7 percent the previous year. The NRF said total spending was $50.9 billion, an 11 percent decline from an estimated $57.4 billion in 2013.
“Shoppers have changed the way in which they view exclusive deals,” NRF chief executive Matthew Shay said during a conference call with reporters. “They have this expectation that they’re going to be here all the time.”
Indeed, shoppers looking for discounts throughout November would have had no trouble finding them. Wal-Mart made price cuts on 20,000 items, including many in-demand holiday gifts, on Nov. 1. Target had a “Black Friday” event Nov. 10 that gave customers a chance to nab its deals early. And a slew of stores, including Toys R Us, Disney Store and Kate Spade Saturday started their sales several days before Thanksgiving.
As fewer shoppers hit the stores, they also spent less money. The NRF found that the average shopper spent $380.95 this year, down 6.4 percent from $407.02 in 2013.
The NRF thinks the decline is related to the early onslaught of promotions. With the deals spread out over a longer period, Shay said, there was less incentive to fill the shopping cart to the brim during the holiday weekend.
It’s unclear how economic conditions might also be shaping spending patterns this weekend. The NRF said the decrease in spending might be a positive sign: As the economy improves, perhaps consumers were not as worried about getting a deal this weekend.
But some big retailers have said they do not expect consumers to be less frugal this holiday season. Wal-Mart and Best Buy, for example, have not forecast a big lift in sales in the fourth quarter because they expect shoppers to continue to be cautious and price-sensitive.
The declines in traffic and spending have not led the NRF to rethink its forecast for the holiday season overall. It predicts 4.1 percent growth, an increase over 3.1 percent last year. Shay said lower gas prices and an improved economy continue to give him confidence in that forecast, as did his conversations over the weekend with leaders at major retailers.
“This dropoff isn’t going to change their optimism leading up to Christmas and New Year’s,” he said. “We’re not hearing [from] anybody that’s concerned that the bottom line is being greatly impacted.”
In an era of near-constant promotions and discounts, Shay said, the tenor of holiday-sales competition has changed.
“Every day is going to be Black Friday, every minute is going to be Cyber Monday,” Shay said. “You can’t let up for a minute.”