November 26, 2012 11:50 pm

US retail – talking turkey

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The important thing is to not come out of Black Friday in the red

Sales results from the traditional start of the US holiday shopping season are rolling in. With the various ways of slicing and dicing the numbers – online versus in-store, Black Friday alone versus including Thanksgiving itself – the results so far look like numbers soup. So, let’s talk turkey, shall we?

On Black Friday, online sales jumped 26 per cent year over year to surpass $1bn for the first time, according to ComScore. In-store sales, however, dropped 1.8 per cent, ShopperTrak found, to $11bn. A little back of the envelope maths using the figures from the two firms suggests total Black Friday sales were up only slightly. But shifting spending patterns make firm conclusions hard to reach. Brick and mortar and online outfits are encouraging shopping on Thanksgiving itself. ShopperTrak said that in-store sales on “Thanksgiving Thursday” and Black Friday combined rose slightly; ComScore showed online sales up 32 per cent to $633m on Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, there is debate as to how much the Black Friday period matters. Credit Suisse analysts argue that the key period is December, when retailers and shoppers are forced into a game of chicken over year-end discounting.

In 2011, December accounted for 17.4 per cent of the year’s department store sales, nearly double the percentage for November. But Capital Economics finds a slight inverse relationship between the week including Black Friday and the rest of the season back to 1992. Holiday shoppers have a set amount to spend. If they splurge early on, they spend less for the remainder and vice versa.

This year, looming tax rises from the fiscal cliff will weigh against cash balances and credit that consumers have built up in recent years. The important thing is to not come out of Black Friday in the red. Other early forecasting is for the birds.

Email the Lex team in confidence at lex@ft.com

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