Online sales, early discounts alter holiday shopping traditions

Early holiday promotions and rising online shopping took a toll on in-store sales during the Thanksgiving weekend as shoppers on average spent 6.4 percent less than they did a year earlier, according to data released Sunday by an industry group.

The National Retail Federation estimated shoppers on average spent $380.95 this holiday weekend, which began on Thursday, compared with $407.02 a year ago. The number of individuals who shopped in stores or online from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday fell 5.2 percent, leading to an 11 percent decrease in total spending.


NRF President and Chief Executive Matthew Shay said there is an "evolutionary change" in holiday shopping among both consumers and retailers, and this trend is likely to continue. The NRF stuck to its forecast for retail sales to rise 4.1 percent this holiday season.

The data highlights the growing importance of online sales and the waning importance of Black Friday — traditionally known as the day when merchants' ledgers went from red to black for the year. Until a few years ago, it marked the start of the holiday shopping season in the United States, as more retailers open their doors on Thanksgiving Day and start discounting merchandise earlier in November.


Retail analytics firm comScore said U.S. online sales rose 32 percent to $766 million on Thanksgiving and 26 percent to $1.2 billion on Black Friday, driven by stronger deals online.

Locally, retailers sounded pleased with their Black Friday and Small Business Saturday results. "Black Friday was a big success," said Bryant Ford, executive team leader of the Baltimore West Target in Mondawmin, which was open continuously from 6 p.m. Thursday to 11 p.m. Friday.

He guessed about 400 people were in line when the store opened Thursday, and business didn't let up until Sunday. "We did a lot better than last year," Ford said.

John Shoemaker, manager of Shoemaker Country furniture in Ellicott City, said, "Friday was really busy, but Saturday was equally busy. Both were really good days. It might be up a little bit from last year, but that is just a guess."

House of Tropicals, a pet and fish store in Glen Burnie, doesn't usually get a big Black Friday weekend rush. Most people who give pets as presents either wait until right before the holidays to pick them up or give gift certificates to buy the animals after the fact.

But owner Mike Hresko said roughly 500 customers came to the 47-year-old, family-owned shop during its 10-percent-off weekend sale on marine fish and corals.

"I was kind of surprised," he said. "Usually we're not a Black Friday-type of store."

Mom and pop shops in Fells Point again participated in Small Business Saturday bygiving out about 500 passports to customers to be stamped in each store they patronized. Those who had five stamps or more were eligible for a raffle to win gift certificates and other prizes from the 11 participating stores.


Claudia Towles, co-owner of aMuse Toys, who organized the inaugural "Main Street Passport" program last year, said small businesses use the weekend to remind shoppers that just as wide a variety of items is available — with better customer service — at their neighborhood stores than at national outlets.

"Toys 'R' Us isn't going to put together the dollhouse for you and hide it in from your kids in the basement," she said, adding that customers enjoy "interacting with people who are passionate about what they do."

The effort is paying off: aMuse tripled its staff to six employees to handle the rush of customers who packed the store from noon until 6 p.m., Towles said. Black Friday sales were up 15 percent from the previous year, and with expanded hours Saturday, sales jumped about 20 percent year-over-year, she said.

The Thanksgiving weekend is an early gauge of consumer mood in a season that generates about 30 percent of sales and nearly 40 percent of profit for retailers.

Discounted high-end apparel, televisions and toys were the most popular this year, followed by items including video games, home furnishings and jewelry, according to the NRF survey of 4,631 consumers.

Nationwide, some 51.2 million shoppers purchased or planned to purchase tech goods over the weekend, according to figures from the Consumer Electronics Association. That amounted to 45 percent of those people shopping, or roughly 21 percent of all U.S. adults, according to the group.


The big seller among tech items this year was television sets; of those who bought or were planning to buy tech products, 37 percent were in the market for a new TV set – up from 27 percent last year.

TVs are always a big seller, said Shawn DuBravac, chief economist for the CEA, and have an average lifespan of about 8 years. The last big upswing in television purchases occurred from 2006 to 2008, he noted, meaning a lot of people may have been looking to upgrade or replace worn-out TVs.

"We're right at the point where we would see consumers' appetite to replace some of those earlier sets start to increase," he said. "I think we're moving into a sweet spot for television purchases."

Other big-selling tech items, ranked in order, were tablets, video game consoles, portable wireless speakers and laptop computers, according to the CEA.

Department stores like Macy's were the most visited followed by discount retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and electronic chains like Best Buy.

NRF said nearly two in five consumers shopped online or planned to shop online by the weekend's end.


On Saturday, research firm ShopperTrack said sales at retail stores fell 0.5 percent.

RetailNext, another analytics firm, on Sunday said it found overall shopper traffic on Black Friday fell 14 percent, but on average shopper spending rose 1.9 percent, as conversion rates were higher, with shoppers spending more once in the store.

"Sales on Black Friday were very disappointing but retailers managed to drive a lot of people to their websites early on which helps us remain optimistic about the overall holiday season," said Shelley Kohan, vice president, retail consulting, at RetailNext.

Noting that many retailers started offering their Black Friday discounts up to a week before Thanksgiving, the CEA's DuBravac said the shopping days leading prior to Christmas were "blending together."

"I think that the individual days are becoming more muted and giving way to kind of a broader shopping period," he said.

Tribune News Service and Reuters contributed to this article.