retail news in context, analysis with attitude

And now, a selection from the endless Thanksgiving Weekend/BlackFriday/Cyber Monday news buffet...

• The Chicago Sun Times reports that the National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates that "139.4 million adults visited stores and online retail sites in the United States during the Thursday-through-Sunday period, up 6 percent from 131 million last year. Counting repeat visitors, the federation estimated 247 million shoppers browsed and bought during the Black Friday period, vs. 226 million last year, a 9 percent increase. The visits translated into spending estimated at $59.1 billion, or about $423 per shopper, up almost 13 percent from $52.4 billion during 2011’s Thanksgiving weekend."

Reuters reports that "Black Friday retail sales online this year topped $1 billion for the first time ever as more consumers used the Internet do their early holiday shopping, comScore Inc said on Sunday. Online sales jumped 26 percent on Black Friday to $1.04 billion from sales of $816 million on the corresponding day last year, according to comScore data.

"Amazon.com was the most-visited retail website on Black Friday, and it also posted the highest year-over-year visitor growth rate among the top five retailers. Wal-Mart Stores Inc's website was second, followed by sites run by Best Buy Co., Target Corp. and Apple Inc."

• NRF is projecting that despite the spending that consumers did over the Thanksgiving weekend, "129.2 million Americans plan to shop on Cyber Monday this year, up from the 122.8 million who shopped last year, and the 106.9 million who shopped on Cyber Monday in 2010." In addition, NRF says, "85 percent of retailers will have a special promotion for Cyber Monday."

• NRF "asked shoppers which days they shopped online – more than one-quarter (27.0%) of holiday shoppers said they shopped online on Thanksgiving Day, and nearly half (47.5%) on Black Friday."

• NRF also says that "the number of shoppers planning to use their smartphones or other mobile device this Cyber Monday increased to 20.4 million this year, from 17.8 million in 2011, an increase of 14.4 percent. In just three years, the number of Americans saying they would use their mobile device to shop on Cyber Monday has skyrocketed from just 3.6 million (3.8%) in 2009 to 20.4 million (15.8%) in 2012.

"While the majority of Cyber Monday shoppers will make purchases from their home computer (88.0%, or 113.7 million people), nearly 16 million will also use their computers at work to shop this year (12.4%)."

• NRF reports that "more than 35 million Americans visited retailers’ stores and websites Thursday – up from 29 million last year ... According to the survey, a record 247 million shoppers visited stores and websites over Black Friday weekend, up from 226 million last year ... the average holiday shopper spent $423 this weekend, up from $398 last year. Total spending reached an estimated $59.1 billion."

• The Wall Street Journal reports on heightened competition between bricks-and-mortar retailers and e-commerce purveyors, with fast and constant price changes on major items as the two retailing segments jockey for pricing supremacy. The Journal writes that "the fast price changes during the year's most competitive shopping period highlight a sea change in how retailing is done. The rise of e-commerce, along with an explosion in data and the power of technology for analyzing it, has made it possible for retailers of all stripes to monitor their rivals' pricing strategies and react in seconds, sometimes with computer algorithms making the decisions.

"Store chains have long battled each other to offer the best deals. But new technology has enabled them to do so more accurately, comprehensively and faster than ever. For consumers, that could mean access to the best bargains without the need to wait in long lines in the cold and dark. For retailers, however, the risk is the profit-killing discounting that already characterizes Black Friday could expand as chains are forced to be more aggressive to stand out."

• And, the Journal suggests, the spread of flexible pricing may mean that more consumers will demand it ... and more retailers may have to deliver it.

• The Boston Globe reports that "Internet retailers recorded 17.4 percent more sales Thursday compared with the previous year’s Thanksgiving Day in large part due to a spike in buying on mobile devices, according to IBM Smarter Commerce, which tracks online holiday shopping activity.

"The number of consumers making Thanksgiving purchases with mobile devices rose 65.3 percent from last year, according to IBM. It also found that tablet users were big after-dinner spenders, with users of Apple’s iPad making up 10.7 percent of mobile activity for the day."

USA Today reports that "Small Business Saturday," created as a day on which consumers are encouraged to shop local retailers instead of national big box chains, seems to be experiencing continued growth, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that small stores saw increased traffic last Saturday. Indeed, a survey of small retailers by NRF reveals that 36 percent of them say that it is their most important shopping day of the year; just 24 percent of independent retailers say that Black Friday is more important.

USA Today reports that "Thanksgiving shopping on Thursday took a noticeable bite out of Black Friday's start to the holiday season, as the latest survey found retail sales in stores fell slightly from last year.

"Saturday's report from retail technology company ShopperTrak estimated that consumers spent $11.2 billion at stores across the U.S. That is down 1.8% from last year's total. This year's Friday results appear to have been tempered by hundreds of thousands of shoppers hitting sales Thursday evening while still full of their Thanksgiving dinner. Retailers including Sears, Target and Wal-Mart got their deals rolling as early as 8 p.m. on Thursday ... Online shopping also may have cut into the take at brick-and-mortar stores: IBM said online sales rose 17.4% on Thanksgiving and 20.7% on Black Friday, compared with 2011."

• Finally, despite all the hoopla, the Wall Street Journal also reports that an analysis "of this year's most-touted Black Friday deals found that many of the bargains advertised as 'doorbusters' were available at lower prices at other times of the year - sometimes even at the same retailer."

The analysis, conducted by the Journal and price-data firm Decide Inc., notes that "retailers generally don't make specific promises of lowest-ever prices, and Decide found many of the bargains appeared to be genuine. The data company said the majority of the doorbuster deals it checked hadn't been available at lower prices during the year. Still, the transparency and easy aggregation afforded by online pricing is making it simpler than ever to test retailers' claims. Decide, for example, found retailers often pick popular brands or lower-quality items for deep discounts on Black Friday."
KC's View:
I have to admit that I'm a little surprised by all the activity over the weekend. I expected that the ubiquity of online and mobile shopping would have evened out the demand, and that people would have been just as able and willing to look for bargains on Wednesday as on Thursday evening and Friday, and that price transparency might have made people a little more willing to wait and see before pulling the trigger.

Clearly, I was wrong. All the hype does mean something, and that probably is an important lesson to learn. Despite the reality of what the Journal reports about prices not being everything they're cracked up to be, and despite the ways in which online and mobile shopping options can change shopper behavior, there are times - and Thanksgiving weekend remains one of them - when shoppers will behave like a pack of Pavlov's dogs,hearing the bell and opening their wallets.

Questions, of course, remain. While the weekend might have been busier and more lucrative than a year ago, we don't know whether people have done the vast majority of their shopping already, meaning that the season as a whole may not see these kinds of increases.

I have to say that I remain skeptical about whether the whole Black Friday/Cyber Monday hype3 is sustainable in the face of new marketing and technological realities. I agree with the Forbes columnist who said over the weekend that these terms could enter the realm of "marketing myths" that have moved into obsolescence. But maybe this will take longer than I thought.

For my part, I bought absolutely no Christmas presents over the weekend. With the exception of the supermarket, I don't even think I went into any stores. I did a little perusing online, but bought nothing other than personalized Christmas cards from Shutterfly ... and I was glad I waited until yesterday to place that order, because they were 40% cheaper than a week earlier.

I'll probably start the Christmas shopping this week ... but it will almost all be online.