Still stressed, but not panicked. That’s the retail state of mind following the Black Friday weekend, which saw unexceptional yet decent enough traffic and sales to hold out hope that the holiday season might not be too bad. At least when measured against last year’s disaster.

On Sunday, retailers told WWD they made their Black Friday weekend plans, albeit conservative ones, citing pent-up demand, “frugal fatigue,” lots of self-purchasing as opposed to buying gifts, widespread doorbusters often starting at 5 a.m., and targeted price promotions. Browsing without buying seemed less an issue this year compared with 2008, though retailers caution Black Friday is not necessarily a barometer for what lies ahead.

Momentum from October did continue through the Black Friday weekend, albeit it’s off the low, low base from last year. And now retailers expect to see fourth-quarter profit improvement, having better managed their inventories and markdowns all season. Top-line sales are another matter. A range from negative to positive 2 percent is forecast.

Along with the record level of doorbusters covering everything from gadgets to garments — Sears alone had 599 while Macy’s offered 250 and Kohl’s had over 300 — retailers cited novelty cashmeres, boots, digital readers, flat-screen TVs well under $1,000, fashion items with sparkle, boxed gift sets and discounted kitchen appliances as the weekend’s winners. The losers were coats and cold-weather fashion and accessories, as well as furniture, while gift cards were not the bonanza of year’s past. The luxury sector remains the slowest. Retailers also said tweeting was a significant factor, getting consumers directed on where to go for the best deals. Today is “Cyber Monday” meaning another blitz of bargains blasted online.

According to the National Retail Federation, 195 million shoppers visited stores and Web sites Friday, Saturday and Sunday, up from 172 million last year. However, spending over the weekend dropped to $343.31 per person on average from $372.57 a year ago. Total spending reached an estimated $41.2 billion.

ShopperTrak reported Black Friday sales rose just 0.5 percent to $10.66 billion after increasing 3 percent in 2008.

“Shoppers proved this weekend that they were willing to open their wallets for a bargain, heading out to take advantage of great deals on less expensive items like toys, small appliances and winter clothes,” said Tracy Mullin, NRF president and chief executive officer. “While retailers are encouraged by the number of Americans who shopped over Black Friday weekend, they know they have their work cut out for them to keep people coming back through Christmas. Shoppers can continue to expect retailers to focus on low prices and bargains through the end of December.”

“Inventories are clean, so retailers are not going to feel pressure to put everything on sale,” said Bill Taubman, chief operating officer of Taubman Centers. “If the weekend had been bad, they would.” He said there were traffic increases both Friday and Saturday at Taubman malls. He is concerned about the consumer psyche, which he characterized as “fairly fragile” and potentially hurt by Dubai’s financial crisis (see story, page 7), though so far, “It doesn’t seem to have impacted customers.”

“Retailers are not going to look back on Black Friday this year to see how busy it was. They’ll look to see how profitable it was,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst, The NPD Group. “Clearly, this year it was more profitable.”

Generally, retailers gambled that markdowns relatively restrained at up to 40 percent — compared with 60 or 70 percent a year ago — would cut it for consumers. “Most people were satisfied with the deals,” Cohen said. “The consumer came out with the intent to shop and when they saw good deals, they took advantage of them. The good news is the crazy chaotic frenzy [of Black Friday] became more organized. It was organized chaos. Retailers have done a better job of communicating what’s on sale and what to expect.” Cohen said he was sticking to his August prediction that retail would have 0.5 to 1.5 percent comp-store growth for holiday, and 2 or 3 percent profit margins. “They will be happy to just be in the black.”

This week, Cohen predicted retailers will slowly “move the needle to 50 or 60 percent off. “It’s discount detoxing. Discounts are clearly not as deep and the consumer is responding favorably.”

The destination of choice this past weekend was department stores, with 49.4 percent of holiday shoppers visiting at least one, a 12.9 percent increase from last year, the NRF said. Discount retailers took “an uncharacteristic back seat” with 43.2 percent of holiday shoppers and another 7.8 percent heading to outlets.

Electronics stores captured 29 percent; clothing stores, 22.9 percent, and grocery stores, 19.6 percent. Of Americans shopping over the weekend, 28.5 percent went online.

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