Heavy promotions drove the weekend, and may impact margins, according to analysts.
"Retailers had unbelievable promotions and extended hours, so I'm not surprised at the results," said Michael J. Silverstein, senior partner at Boston Consulting Group.
Silverstein's firm is expecting a good, but not exceptional, holiday shopping season. He said with unemployment flat and the income of the top 40 percentile in a growth mode, retail sales will likely come in better than expected.
The top 40 percentile accounts for 65 percent of total U.S. consumption, and the group has a median income of $175,000, which is growing in real terms, Silverstein said.
"So they are not likely to give up Christmas," he added.
Still, Silverstein admitted there is tremendous pressure on lower-income households, which explains why Wal-Mart Stores shifted its focus earlier this fall back to everyday low-price promotions.
But what that means for the long holiday shopping season remains to be seen. Deborah Weinswig, retail analyst at Citigroup, said in a research note Saturday that the "usual Black Friday buzz was tempered by the lack of must-have items in key giftable categories."
"The promotional excitement of Black Friday was lessened by retailers' early promotions and [Wal-Mart]'s aggressive stance on pricing as early as October to gain customer mindshare," Weinswig said in her note. "We believe that macro pressures led low-end consumers to stick to the hot Black Friday promotions. We continue to believe that Broadlines retailers' same-store sales will be a sluggish 2 to 3 percent [gain]."
In the midtier battle between J.C. Penney and Kohl's, Weinswig said the retailers' 4 a.m. opening benefited Wal-Mart "as shoppers were able to catch Wal-Mart's 5 a.m. opening after shopping at J.C. Penney and Kohl's."
One source close to Kohl's said early traffic was strong. A store in Newburgh, N.Y., which is near the intersection of two interstate highways, had sales on Black Friday of over $350,000.
Weinswig said, though, that traffic lessened after shoppers hit the stores early. "Consumers took a targeted approach to Black Friday, sticking to their lists," she said. "Most appeared to be buying very little for themselves, despite the coldest Black Friday in 10 years. The initial burst of traffic quickly dissipated as consumers finished their shopping early."
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