Shoppers hitting the stores in November encountered a month-long merry-go-round of holiday season discounts as retailers tried to lure them to spend in the crucial fourth quarter. Wal-Mart, for example, cut prices on 20,000 items Nov. 1 and then held a five-day blitz of Black Friday deals that kicked off on Thanksgiving.
Retailers have been only cautiously optimistic about the holiday shopping season: While lower gas prices are freeing up discretionary spending money and the improving job market is restoring confidence in the economy, consumers remain extremely price-sensitive and are unlikely to make impulse buys. This consumer mindset has many retailers expecting flat sales this holiday season, or perhaps only modest gains.
On Nov. 30, the National Retail Federation released the results of a survey that found that spending over Thanksgiving weekend fell 11 percent compared to the previous year.
While these findings stoked some fears that retailers were in for a rough holiday season, the Commerce Department data suggests the kickoff to Christmas shopping was relatively strong.
With so many Black Friday deals running for several days or even weeks, the weaker sales and foot traffic over Thanksgiving weekend were likely a sign that shoppers didn’t cut back on their gift-hunting–they simply spread it out.
The 0.7 percent gain was larger than the 0.4 percent increase economists had expected. Revised figures for October showed that retail sales grew 0.5 percent that month, an improvement over initially reported 0.3 percent.
Richard Moody, chief economist with Regions Financial Corporation, wrote in a research note that he expects low energy prices to continue to be a tailwind for consumer spending in December.
“Retail pump prices have fallen even further thus far in December, and have further to go on the downside, and to the extent household energy prices moderate as well, overall household expenditures on energy over the winter could be considerably lower than was the case last winter,” Moody wrote.