Up-tick in Weekend Holiday Spend — How Should We Read the Numbers?

As kick offs go, this past weekend following Thanksgiving was a bonanza for retail sales in the U.S. The National Retail Federation reported late Sunday that "According to a survey conducted over the weekend by BIGresearch, more shoppers visited stores and websites over Black Friday weekend – and spent more – than a year ago [with] 212 million shoppers visit[ing] stores and websites over Black Friday weekend, up from 195 million last year. People also spent more, with the average shopper this weekend spending $365.34, up from last year's $343.31. Total spending reached an estimated $45.0 billion."

Incredibly, the NRT claims the number of people in stores on Friday "by 4 a.m. [comprised] nearly one-fourth (24.0%) of Black Friday shoppers [and those] who began their Black Friday shopping at midnight tripled this year from 3.3 percent last year to 9.5 percent in 2010." But does this portend a major retail recovery or just more impassioned consumer bargain hunting?

Ellen Davis, a federation spokeswoman quoted in yesterday's New York Times said "It's important to keep the economy in mind here. Sometimes Black Friday is not an indicator of the holiday season, because people are so focused on deals that they'll get themselves up early, ... while in better economic times, they will shop even on days without huge promotions." The predictive validity of the weekend sales figures warrants skepticism. Davis also cautioned that "in 2008, one of the worst holiday seasons in recent years, survey respondents [at the time] said they had spent about $373 on average, a record high."

In looking at a simple graph of percentage growth in holiday retail sales from the National Retail Federation, it's interesting to note that holiday sales growth declined steadily from 5.9% in 2004, to 5.5% in '05, to 3.1% in '06, to 1.8% in '07 and then crashed in '08 to -3.9%, recovering to .4% in '09. While certainly welcome, should the NRT's prediction for the 2010 season hold true at 2.3 %, that will only be half the recovery experienced last year.

We'll take it. In the words of Comscore Chairman Gian Fulgoni, in Bloomberg, "While this early spending surge reflects, in part, heavy promotional activity on the part of retailers occurring earlier this season, it is nevertheless a very encouraging sign." Onward and upward -- 2.3% growth beats the heck out of 2008's -3.9%.

William Busch

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