New York - Earlier store openings, a bargain-hungry consumer and the lure of deeply discounted TVs and laptops contributed to the largest Black Friday sales haul in history this past weekend.
Americans spent a record $52 billion from Thanksgiving through Sunday, or $398.62 per shopper, a 9.1 percent increase from last year, the National Retail Federation (NRF) reported, while traffic to stores and websites rose 6.6 percent to hit an historic high of 226 million visits.
Broken out by channel, 62.2 percent of the total weekend spend took place in brick-and-mortar stores and 37.8 percent was transacted online, the trade group said.
Black Friday proper was also one for the record books. According to market research firm ShopperTrak, sales at brick-and-mortar stores rose 6.6 percent the day after Thanksgiving to $11.4 billion, while foot traffic increased a 5.1 percent from last year.
But despite criticisms of holiday commercialism, many started their Black Friday shopping even sooner thanks to earlier store openings. Customers left their Thanksgiving tables for an 8 p.m. opening at Toys "R" Us, a 10 p.m. sale at Walmart, and midnight doorbusters at Best Buy and Target, among others. According to the NRF, nearly one-quarter of Black Friday shoppers had hit the bricks by midnight, compared with 9.5 percent in 2010 and 3.3 percent in 2009.
"The appetite for these early openings is only getting stronger among holiday shoppers, and retailers did a great job providing Americans just what they wanted this weekend -- the ability to shop on Black Friday without having to get out of bed before dawn," observed Phil Rist, executive VP of NRF's research partner BIGresearch.
E-tailers also enjoyed an exceptional turnout. According to market research firm ComScore, online sales rose 26 percent to $816 million on Black Friday, while Thanksgiving Day sales increased 18 percent to $479 million. Amazon.com was the traffic leader on Black Friday, with a 50 percent increase in visits year over year, followed by Walmart.com, BestBuy.com, Target.com and Apple.com.
"Despite some analysts' predictions that the flurry of brick-and-mortar retailers opening their doors early for Black Friday would pull dollars from online retail, we still saw a banner day for e-commerce," said ComScore chairman Gian Fulgoni.
What were consumers clamoring for? Lured by cheap TVs, notebooks and Blu-ray Disc players, nearly half of all shoppers bought technology products over the weekend, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) said, making it the second most sought-after category after clothing. "Mature product categories such as televisions, digital cameras and MP3 players fared well this weekend as unprecedented price points proved too tempting for shoppers to ignore," noted CEA chief economist and research director Shawn DuBravac.
Indeed, 61 percent of shoppers polled in a CEA Black Friday survey described the deals and sales as good or excellent, more so in stores (60 percent) than online (35 percent).
The data were mirrored in a Black Friday study by The NPD Group, which found that almost 65 percent of tech purchasers were driven into stores or online because "they saw what they really wanted on sale," industry analysis VP Stephen Baker wrote in an NPD blog. More than 23 percent of Black Friday shoppers purchased some type of electronics product, 15 percent more than last year and 50 percent above toys, which was the third most popular category, he reported.
Within CE, TV saw a 30 percent increase in Black Friday purchases year over year to pass computers as the most popular electronics category excluding games, Baker said. The finding is supported by PriceGrabber, the comparison shopping site, which cited "55-inch LED TV" as the No. 1 search within tech, toys and clothing on Black Friday, followed by PlayStation3, Xbox 360, Eos Rebel T3i and iPod Touch fourth-generation 8GB.
Besides intrepid shoppers, who were the big winners this holiday weekend? According to NPD's Baker, Best Buy was the fourth most frequently shopped retailer behind full-line merchants Walmart, Target and Amazon, which sell a much wider variety of products than the CE specialty chain. Best Buy also enjoyed the highest conversion rate, with more than 58 percent of shoppers actually making purchases, compared with just 38 percent last year, representing the largest gain among the four rivals.
Credit Suisse retail analyst Gary Balter concurred with Baker's assessment based on Black Friday store visits in several markets across three states. "Best Buy seemed to be the relative winner as stores were at least as busy as last year and traffic was solid well past the initial doorbusters," he wrote in a research note. "Also, it seems like many others either did not open as early or focused a lot less on electronics than in previous years. For example, the
office supply [chains] cut back significantly from last year and Sears opened much later and focused on appliances."
Best Buy's seeming Black Friday success, which was critical following successive quarterly comp sale declines, was due in part "to locking in compelling exclusive deals, better than Amazon's, and having unique in-store- only offers forcing the visit," Balter said.
Indeed, Anthony Bonevento, general manager of a 33,000-square-foot Best Buy store in Holmdel, N.J., reported a record turnout of 1,000 early-bird shoppers by midnight of Black Friday. Most queued up for hours, and in one case more than a day, for a chance to snag a 55-inch 1080p Samsung LED TV for $1,000; a 42-inch 1080p Sharp LCD TV for $200; a 15.6-inch dual-core Lenovo laptop for $180; a 24-inch, 1080p Dynex LCD TV for $80; and a Toshiba Internet-ready Blu-ray Disc player for $40.
"It's hands-down bigger than last year," Bonevento told TWICE. "In fact, it's the biggest crowd in four years."
Whether the momentum will carry into today's "Cyber Monday" promotions, and whether the CE industry can sustain it through Christmas, remains to be seen.