Thursday, December 29, 2011
The holiday shopping season turned out to be two seasons: the Black Friday binge and a last-minute surge.
Together, they added up to decent sales gains for retailers. And the doldrums in between showed how shoppers have learned to wait for the discounts they know will come.
“The days that the American consumer gets excited about 25 percent off are over,” said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group. “Shoppers are keeping their eye on the ball for the big sales events.”
In November, spending rose 4.1 percent. And from Dec. 1 to Dec. 24, it rose 4.7 percent compared with the same period last year, according to research firm ShopperTrak. A 4 percent increase is considered a healthy season.
The higher sales are good news for the economy, because they show shoppers were willing to fund a holiday splurge despite high unemployment and other lingering economic woes. Consumer spending, including major items such as health care, accounts for 70 percent of the economy.
Still, plenty of people are pinched for cash in the slow economic recovery, and they were seeking the best deals, which could squeeze stores’ profits for the fourth quarter, says Hana Ben-Shabat, a partner in the retail practice of A.T. Kearney, a management consulting firm.
Stores have trained even shoppers who are primed to spend to look for a discount.
Heading into the season, stores were nervous that shoppers would be tight- fisted. Many officially opened the season with discounts on TVs and toys that started as early as Thanksgiving Day. Consumers came out in droves, resulting in record spending.
Then the frenzy tapered off. A mild winter and the fact that Christmas fell on a Sunday encouraged people to wait until the last minute and accentuated the peaks and valleys of spending.
Stores started to push more discounts to get shoppers to spend in the finale. In fact, retailers’ promotional emails from Sunday, Dec. 18, to Thursday, Dec. 22, spiked 34 percent, compared with the same period a year ago, according to Responsys, which tracks email activity from more than 100 merchants.
According to Beemer’s consumer surveys, 60 percent of shoppers polled were looking for discounts of more than 50 percent to get them to buy. That’s up from last year’s 51 percent of shoppers polled.
Tracey Spears of Locust Grove, Ga., who was shopping Wednesday at Atlanta’s Lenox Square Mall, said she got 75 percent of her holiday shopping done Black Friday or the day after Thanksgiving. She took advantage of deals, including a Keurig coffee pot from Target and clothes from Hollister on sale.
Spears and others helped to create pronounced waves in spending.
“The downs and ups were much more accentuated,” said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. “It just shows how cautious the consumer is. Consumers are bargain hunters more today than ever before.”
In the week before Christmas, last-minute shoppers gave retailers a 4.5 percent increase in revenue over the same week last year at stores open at least a year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs Weekly Chain Store Sales Index. The index estimates sales at 24 major chain stores including Macy’s Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp.