After a lukewarm autumn for retail, shoppers came through in record numbers on Black Friday weekend, marking the traditional start of the holiday selling season with traffic jams and long checkout lines.
What's more, pricing appeared more rational than last year, with older models and private-label products comprising much of the door-buster specials (see story, left).
That was the good news.
The bad news was that shoppers on average spent less than they did last year, generally favoring small, grab-and-go consumer electronics over flat-panel TVs, which fueled 2006's Black Friday frenzy.
According to a survey by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and BIGresearch, more than 147 million shoppers, or nearly half the population of the United States, hit the stores over the extended holiday weekend, up 4.8 percent from last year. But their expenditures from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday were down 3.5 percent vs. last year, to $347.44 per shopper.
"While last year showed a greater emphasis on high-definition televisions, this year consumers were focused on lower-priced door-busters like digital photo frames, laptops and cashmere sweaters," said NRF president/CEO Tracy Mullin.
Gregg Richard, president of New York metro area chain P.C. Richard & Son, confirmed that handheld electronics including GPS devices, digital cameras and iPods were among the most requested items at the company's 50 stores over the weekend, as were flat-panel TVs. But the strongest demand was for video game consoles and software, particularly Nintendo's Wii platform, "that we just didn't have," he said. "There was extreme demand for Wii, and we couldn't get enough."
Indeed, 41.7 percent of shoppers purchased video games, DVDs or CDs, NRF said, making it the second most popular purchase, behind apparel. CE ranked third, at 37.5 percent of weekend purchases.
Although The NPD Group was still tabulating its Black Friday sales tally at press time, industry analysis VP Stephen Baker predicted that GPS and digital picture frames would be the "two big winners" of the holiday weekend. "GPS was everywhere and sold out right away," he said. "Ninety-nine dollars for a PND is a pretty big inducement." And both categories, he added, "are relatively under-penetrated."
Phil Rist, strategy VP for BIGresearch, believes that the record weekend foot traffic compensated for the smaller average ticket. "Knowing that consumers would be challenged by the current economic environment, retailers hoped that higher traffic would offset lower individual spending, which it did," he said.
Richard of P.C. Richard attributed the smaller spend to CE price compression, particularly in TV. "Given the decline in pricing, it makes sense," he said. "Products are more affordable — and better featured."
Shoppers also came out earlier this year. Some 14.3 percent of consumers were out shopping before 4 a.m. on Black Friday, NRF said, compared with 12.4 percent last year, as more retailers opened their doors earlier.
Total sales on the day after Thanksgiving were up 8.3 percent to $10.3 billion, according to preliminary sales estimates by ShopperTrak RCT, a Chicago market research firm. Black Friday typically accounts for between 4.5 percent and 5 percent of all holiday sales, the company said.
David Strasser, a retail analyst with Banc of America Securities, described CE as "a home run" on Black Friday, with estimated comp sales up by the high single to low double digits. "Key drivers were TVs, laptops, MP3 (not just iPods this time) and GPS, which we believe will add meaningfully to comp this holiday," he wrote in a research note.
"Although retailers need to remain cautious, the Black Friday outpouring should have them breathing a sigh of relief and they will be paying close attention to see if consumers continue this strong shopping pace throughout the holiday season," said ShopperTrak co-founder Bill Martin.
By the end of the long weekend, the average person finished 36.4 percent of their holiday shopping, NRF said, with only one in 12 consumers (8.2 percent) completing their purchases for the season.