US Thanksgiving sales set to be down

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US retail sales are likely to be down on last year in the four days from Thanksgiving to Sunday despite the early opening of stores and a surge in online spending, according to initial estimates.

The National Retail Federation said on Sunday that it expected total spending over the long holiday weekend – when some stores opened earlier than ever on Thanksgiving night – to drop to $57.4bn from $59bn last year.

It said 141m people were buying over the holiday weekend, up from 139m last year, but a survey of their shopping intentions indicated that their average spend would fall to $407 from nearly $424 last year.

On Thanksgiving and Black Friday alone, sales at stores rose by a modest 2.3 per cent from last year, according to estimates from ShopperTrak, a research group.

The retail federation’s estimates suggest that Saturday and Sunday were much lighter shopping days.

ShopperTrak reiterated its longer-term forecast of a 2.4 per cent rise in sales in November and December as a whole. That would be the slimmest gain since 2009, when holiday sales were down from the previous year.

Ecommerce continued to boom as more consumers opted to avoid the crowds and shop online, where many retailers offered the same “door buster” discounts they had in stores.

On Thanksgiving, online sales climbed 18 per cent year-on-year to just over $1bn and on Black Friday they jumped 39 per cent to $1.9bn, according to analysis by Adobe Systems.

Ecommerce extends beyond online-only businesses such as Amazon and eBay. Traditional retailers are taking more traffic away from their stores with their own websites. For example Target, a style-oriented discount chain, said it experienced twice as many online orders as on Thanksgiving last year.

Despite improvements in labour and housing markets, retailers and economists say US consumers continue to be inhibited by economic uncertainty, rising living costs, confusion over healthcare and political gridlock in Washington.

At malls and big box retail parks, shopper numbers on Black Friday itself were down 11.4 per cent from last year, ShopperTrak said, as consumers were lured by retailers that opened earlier than ever on Thanksgiving at 6pm or 8pm.

Bill Martin, ShopperTrak’s founder, said it was expensive for retailers to open on Thanksgiving because they had to offer holiday pay and other incentives to employees and that would put their profitability in the spotlight.

“You’ve got extra expenses and deep discounts, so the question is: did anyone make any money?” he said.

Retailers typically begin the holiday season with a few loss-leading discounts, but they are carefully planned. Profitability often takes the biggest hit later in the season when they are forced to offer big unplanned discounts to offload products that have flopped.

NPD, a research group, said the top-selling items on Thursday, Friday and Saturday were clothing, which accounted for 28 per cent of purchases, followed by toys at 11 per cent.

The long Thanksgiving weekend accounts for about 10 per cent of retail sales in November and December, according to analysts at Cowen & Co.

The holiday season can account for between 20 and 40 per cent of retailers’ annual revenues, said the National Retail Federation.

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