U.S. Retail Holiday Sales Up 2.3%, Foot Traffic Declines

U.S. retailers eked out a 2.3 percent sales gain on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, in line with a prediction for the weakest holiday results since 2009.

Sales at brick-and-mortar stores on Thanksgiving and Black Friday rose to $12.3 billion, according to a report yesterday from ShopperTrak. The Chicago-based researcher reiterated its prediction that sales for the entire holiday season will gain 2.4 percent, the smallest increase since the last recession.

Retailers offered more and steeper deals on merchandise from flat-screen televisions to crockpots that, while luring shoppers, may ultimately hurt fourth-quarter earnings. Many consumers showed up prepared to zero in on their favored items while shunning the impulse buys that help retailers’ profits.

“You could get the same deals online as you could get in the store, and yet there were still a ton of people out there,” Charles O’Shea, a senior analyst at Moody’s Investors Service in New York, said in an interview. Going out to stores, “is part of the experience,” he said.

About 97 million people planned to shop online or in stores on Friday, with about 140 million intending to do so Thanksgiving through Sunday, the National Retail Federation said. That’s down from 147 million last year.

With more stores opening on Thanksgiving, sales were pulled forward from Friday, Bill Martin, ShopperTrak’s founder, said in a telephone interview. Sales on Friday fell 13.2 percent from last year, with foot traffic down 11.4 percent. Foot traffic for the combined Thanksgiving-Black Friday period rose 2.8 percent to more than 1.07 billion store visits, ShopperTrak said.

Consumers Responded

“The consumers really responded to Thursday’s openings, actually more than anybody anticipated,” Martin said.

Jennifer Doval had an easier time getting to the stores for her Black Friday shopping this year at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

“It’s just quiet -- I don’t know if it’s because it was open yesterday,” Doval, a 42-year-old stay-at-home mother from nearby Edina, said on Friday while shopping for clothes for her 12-year-old daughter and gifts for her parents. She arrived at 7 a.m. and was “shocked how empty the parking ramps were.’

The continued rise of e-commerce also may have kept some shoppers at home. Online sales rose 20 percent from last year on Thanksgiving and 19 percent on Black Friday, IBM Corp. said. Target Corp. said it had twice as many online orders early on Thanksgiving morning as a year ago. Amazon.com Inc. lured shoppers by offering discounts as often as every 10 minutes during the holiday week.

Amazon Deals

‘‘I went a little happy doing Amazon lightning deals, and I got my toy shopping done last Friday at Wal-Mart’s pre-Black Friday sale,” Swati Parekh, a 44-year-old ophthalmologist in Towaco, New Jersey, who didn’t go shopping on Friday, said in a phone interview.

Faced with smaller crowds of less confident consumers, as well as six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas than last year, retailers poured on margin-eating discounts to grab market share.

More than a dozen retailers also opened earlier or for the first time on Thanksgiving Day. Among the first-timers were Macy’s Inc., Kohl’s Corp. and J.C. Penney Co., which is in the midst of turnaround efforts. About 33 million shoppers intended to shop on turkey day, said the NRF, a Washington-based trade group.

Wal-Mart Sales

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it served more customers on Thanksgiving than the 22 million who shopped on the holiday a year earlier, without providing a specific figure. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based chain processed more than 10 million register transactions from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and sold 2.8 million towels, 2 million televisions and 1.4 million tablets.

Some shoppers took advantage of the discounts and focused only on the items they needed while shunning impulse purchases of goods retailers have kept closer to full price.

Giselle Suazo, 28, and her husband Luis Aracena, 26, of Lawrence, Massachusetts, shopped with their 7-year-old daughter and three-year-old son at a Wal-Mart store in Salem, New Hampshire, on Friday.

Suazo, who was unemployed and in school at this time last year, now works as an intake coordinator at a home health services agency. While she and Aracena, who works at a power-supply company, plan to spend slightly more money this year than last, their budget remains tight after moving into a new apartment.

Mission Shoppers

The family is shopping with a plan, and she prepared by looking at retailers’ websites last week.

“You’ve got to know specifically what you want to buy,” said Suazo, who already had two Barbie dolls in her cart marked down to $8 from $20.

While traffic at the Mall of America was higher than last year, shoppers planned ahead of time where they were going and what they were buying, said Maureen Bausch, the mall’s executive vice president.

There was “a lot of mission shopping, and you don’t normally see that until later in the season,” she said.

That’s bad news for retailers, who normally get about 20 percent of their holiday sales from impulse purchases, said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for NPD Group Inc.

Planned Shopping

Thom Blischok, chief retail strategist with Booz & Co. in San Francisco, said every one of the 300 shoppers he spoke with on Thanksgiving and Friday had a list.

“They had an absolute plan,” said Blischok, who hit malls and shopping strips around Paradise Valley, Arizona. “I found virtually no browsing.”

Some shoppers even walked away empty-handed. Katherine Miao said she had been at the Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey with her father, mother and sister for almost eight hours on Friday without getting the black high-heeled shoes she was looking for.

“The store had a blue shade on sale, but the black shoe wasn’t, so the manager tried to talk me into different black shoes,” said Miao, a 16-year-old high-school student from Randolph, New Jersey. “But I had my eyes on the first pair, and I ended up not buying anything.”

Sales have been undermined by wobbly consumer sentiment in recent months. Confidence among U.S. consumers, whose spending makes up about 70 percent of the nation’s economy, declined in November to a seven-month low, the Conference Board said Nov. 26.

Purchasing Power

This year, 65 percent of Americans said they were living paycheck to paycheck, up from 61 percent last year, in part because their purchasing power has been eroded by higher costs, according to Booz’s research.

The NRF has a more optimistic forecast and last week reiterated that U.S. retail sales may advance 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion during the holiday season, up from last year’s 3.5 percent gain. Online holiday sales will increase as much as 15 percent to $82 billion this year, the group said.

Sales in November and December account for 20 percent to 40 percent of U.S. retailers’ annual revenue and 20 percent of their profit, according to the NRF.

The term Black Friday is believed to derive from the myth that retailers didn’t become profitable until this day each year.

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