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Holiday shopping got off to a limp, not a dash.

Overall, analysts described Black Friday as light on traffic, which followed a bust on Grey Thursday as bargain hunters failed to move the needle on sales. According to RetailNext, net sales for the combined Thanksgiving and Black Friday period were down 1.5 percent year-over-year on flat traffic. But the firm said the average transaction value was up 1.1 percent.

Reports of lower foot traffic chilled investors in the abbreviated trading session on Friday, and as the broader markets closed the day somewhat flat, retail stocks slumped.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average slipped 0.1 percent to 17,798 while the S&P 500 closed up 0.2 percent 5,127. The S&P 500 Retailing Industry Group index shed 0.2 percent to 1,308, and the WWD Global Stock Tracker declined 0.4 percent to 110.49. Gap Inc. fell 2.5 percent to $27.36 while Men’s Wearhouse Inc. lost 1.7 percent to $20.65. Other decliners included Macy’s Inc. with a 1 percent drop to $39.99 and J.C. Penney Co. Inc. with a 0.7 percent drop to $8.21. Kohl’s Corp. finished 0.9 percent lower to $48.07 and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. lost 0.6 percent to $59.91.

One bright spot so far has been the online segment of the market — with mobile activity in particular showing a stronger presence this year. Performance analytics firm HookLogic, which tracks e-commerce traffic, said consumers on mobile accounted for 65 percent of the overall “shopping activity” on Thanksgiving and 59 percent on Black Friday. The data also showed that e-commerce traffic on Thanksgiving was twice as high as in the prior week. The firm said that traffic peaked at 9 p.m. on the holiday and conversions peaked at 10 p.m., “as consumers did their final research then locked in Thanksgiving deals.”

ShopRunner (which is a members-only online shopping service that connects brands and retailers to consumers) said on Thanksgiving Day and within its network of retailers, same-store sales rose 40 percent, “mostly driven by growth in the mobile channel.” The company noted that its consumer “members spent more with their mobile devices. Mobile usage grew by double the rate of desktop spend and accounted for 35 percent of ShopRunner sales versus 30 percent for last year.”

For Cyber Monday, ShopRunner said 85 percent of its consumer members intend to shop that day. “Additionally, recognizing the importance of Cyber Monday, many ShopRunner retailers are actually planning to offer better deals on Cyber Monday versus on Black Friday,” the company said.

IHS Global Insight director of consumer economics Chris Christopher said one key issue for brick and mortar stores was that Black Friday fell on a day with fewer payroll checks in the pipeline. According to the firm’s analysis, there were about 20 million fewer paychecks in the market as compared to last year. “There were significantly fewer people who were paid this week,” he said. “And they’re not getting paid until the 30th — so that had an impact.”

Christopher explained that this year, median household income adjusted for inflation “is expected to be 4.6 percent below its 2007 level. Because the bottom 50 percent are still struggling, payroll cycle economics – the effect of consumers doing their shopping in the day or two after they are paid – is becoming increasingly important in this economy,” he said.

He said for the shoppers who did venture out, the winds were in their favor. He noted that consumer prices — excluding gas and food — remain low. “And in apparel especially, retailers are sitting on a lot of inventory so they are offering steep discounts to move it out. So consumers are finding some great deals — and will continue to [as the season progresses].”

For retailers, Christopher said he expects sales to come in higher this quarter, but gross margins will suffer due to the flurry of markdowns. As a result, he reiterated his forecast for a 3.5 percent retail sales gain this holiday, which compares to a 3.7 percent gain estimate from the National Retail Federation.

BB&T analyst Anthony Chukumba echoed similar concerns about inventory headwinds and other issues. He remain cautious for the holiday season, but suggested investors could find some value in the market. “Warm weather in October and November has contributed to heavy inventory in footwear and apparel, which could drive elevated promotions through the balance of the year, and forecasts of a strong El Niño cast doubt on whether a relieving cold-snap is impending,” Chukumba said. “At the same time, economic data has continued to gradually improve, resulting in our expectation of a mixed holiday season, and our advice to be selective.”

On Black Friday itself, Macy’s, J.C. Penney, the Hudson’s Bay Co., and other stores cited lines outside their doors before Thanksgiving Day openings, as well as sustained traffic on the morning of Black Friday. Deep discounts aggressively advertised, good weather in most of the country and some pent-up demand seemed to motivate shoppers.

Retailers were expecting to see good crowds again on Saturday and Sunday, though they don’t expect to conduct as much business over the weekend as they did on the two days before.

“We got off to a great start,” said Marvin Ellison, chief executive officer of J.C.Penney Co. Inc., which opened its doors at 3 p.m. Thanksgiving Day, three hours earlier than Macy’s. “Lines were forming around the country. We had really strong sales in stores and online,” Ellison told WWD.

For the most part, the mood on Friday was good, with retailers thankful to see shoppers out and about and spending enough to support a good start to the season. Yet they also remain uncertain about what the rest of the season might bring.

“As early as the day before Thanksgiving, retailers rolled out the red carpet for their customers with uniquely timed offers on electronics, apparel, sporting goods, toys and more,” said Matthew Shay, president and ceo of the National Retail Federation. “The excitement continued into Thursday as reports of long lines outside stores on Thanksgiving and Black Friday were matched by reports of record-breaking online sales….By the time Cyber Monday wraps up, retailers will have closed the books on another successful Thanksgiving weekend, but we know the holiday season is a marathon not a sprint, as there are countless opportunities left for retailers through the end of December.” The NRF predicts that holiday sales will increase 3.7 percent to $630.5 billion, which is significantly higher than the 10-year average of 2.5 percent, though a decline from the holiday sales gain in 2014 of 4.1 percent.

At Macy’s Herald Square, 15,000 shoppers stormed the front doors of the Herald Square flagship at 6 p.m. Thursday opening, giving the $28 billion retailer a much-needed “positive” start to its holiday season in what’s been an otherwise slow fall for business.

“It’s been a challenging third quarter and this November has been the warmest November in 250 years, but last night everybody came out,” Terry Lundgren, Macy’s Inc. chairman and chief executive officer, told WWD today. “That kick-started the holiday season.”

Media reports have suggested that because of pre-Black Friday deals proliferating this year, Black Friday itself is losing relevance as a big shopping day, but not everybody agrees. “The death of Black Friday has been grossly exaggerated. The season is kicking off with crowds in the stores and traffic on the Internet,” said Jerry Storch, chief executive officer of the Hudson’s Bay Co. which operates Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, HBC and Kaufhof department stores and Web sites. “There is not a sea change in consumer behavior.”

“I think consumers are in a good place,” Storch added. “Consumers have money. They are spending money. You see winners and losers, even in apparel. It’s important to maintain a long-term perspective and to follow that long-term strategy.”

The Black Friday stretch must be regarded as more of a 24-hour period, with Thanksgiving Day and the Friday after as a combined period continuing to grow in retail revenues, as Storch suggested. “I’m pretty darn sure that it will be the biggest shopping day,” Storch said of the Thursday-Friday period.

HBC’s best-selling categories for holiday so far include cashmere sweaters, women’s boots, handbags, cosmetics, contemporary men’s and women’s sportswear, ath-leisure and activewear, Storch said.

Asked if HBC was more price-promotional than a year ago, Storch replied, “We are very aggressive,” and then he cited two deals: at Saks, a $75 gift card with $150 purchase, and at Lord & Taylor, $39.99 cashmere sweaters.

Target Corp. said it had record-breaking online traffic and strong in-store traffic on Thanksgiving Day. Shoppers were given early online access to almost all of Target’s doorbusters on Thursday and demand outpaced 2014’s performance, making it the biggest day for online sales so far, the retailer said. Sales were driven by electronics. The order-online and in-store-pickup option saw a 35 percent bump on Thursday prior to 6 p.m.

“Target got a head start going into Black Friday with the record-breaking launch of Adele’s new album and our 10 Days of Deals promotion,” said Target chairman and ceo Brian Cornell, who visited the retailer’s Jersey City, N.J., store on Thanksgiving. “The momentum continued with our Black Friday pre-sale and on Thanksgiving we saw millions of shoppers take advantage of great offers online and in our stores. We expect demand to continue through the weekend and into December.”

Top sellers at Target on Thanksgiving and Black Friday included Apple iPads, with one iPad sold per second on Thanksgiving Day, as well as Apple smartwatches, Nintendo Wii U, Beats Solo2 headphones and movies, either in stores or online. Target.com will be discounting 15 percent on Cyber Monday and on Dec. 1 all beauty products will be 25 percent off.

While retailers interviewed said they saw decent or better traffic, a research note from SunTrust said that channel checks in the New York metro area and New England found weak traffic. “Our team members had no problem finding parking spaces or navigating stores,” SunTrust said. “Lines at Wal-Mart and Target were about half of last year’s. Kohl’s was the exception to the lame traffic. Traffic at Minneapolis’ Mall of America looked weaker than in past years. It didn’t look much busier than an average Saturday morning.”

Craig R. Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, which sent out 18 researchers to 80 different malls, lifestyle, power and outlet centers around the country Thursday and Friday, described traffic as lackluster. “We think demand keeps getting pull forward. Black Friday has been hollowed out because of online sales and traffic getting pull forward” through pre-Black Friday promotions. He said that Black Friday is no longer the biggest volume day of the year for retailers in general and that the two Saturdays before Christmas this year, Dec. 12 and Dec. 19, would be bigger volume days. Macy’s and HBC, however, indicated Black Friday would be their biggest-volume periods of the year. For this weekend, “malls are going to be relatively quiet,” Johnson said.

Johnson doesn’t think the consumer is in great shape. If you are in the bottom 80-percentile income bracket, real disposable income has gone down about 2 percent from last year, Johnson said. “You have less money to spend on merchandise,” primarily due to greater housing, insurance and health-care costs, though gas and apparel prices have declined. Like SunTrust, he was bullish on Kohl’s, which he thought drew the highest levels of traffic among department stores. “It counterprogrammed versus other major retailers by not offering the same specials online as in stores, so you had to physically come to the store last evening to get the best specials. Lines at checkout routinely ran into the hundreds.”

The Neiman Marcus Group suffered a blow when neimanmarcus.com crashed Friday morning at about 8 but by late in the afternoon, the Web site was back up. Earlier, it indicated that it was experiencing technical difficulties and encouraged visitors to shop bergdorfgoodman.com as an alternative. Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus are divisions of the Neiman Marcus Group.

A march to protest the October 2014 fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white Chicago police officer disrupted Black Friday shopping along North Michigan Avenue, the city’s tony retail district, also known as the Magnificent Mile. Hundreds of protesters stopped traffic for blocks and tried to prevent shoppers from entering stores shouting, “No Justice, No Shopping.”

Police shut down northbound Michigan Avenue at the Chicago River on Friday morning. Hundreds gathered to express outrage over the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by police officer Jason Van Dyke. The officer was charged with first-degree murder in connection with the incident. Tension has been building since Tuesday when police released a dashboard video of the shooting.

The march, which was organized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and local activists, received support from the Chicago Teachers Union, which issued a statement on Thanksgiving urging its members to participate.

“People aren’t coming downtown because of the protest,” said an employee at Alice + Olivia. “There aren’t many customers in the store.”

“We’re actually closed,” an employee of True Religion said. “The protesters literally physically came into the store and started rioting.” He declined to be more specific and referred questions to the company’s corporate office, which was closed. Other stores on North Michigan Avenue likely to have been affected are Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Tiffany & Co., Bulgari, Cartier, Burberry and Gucci.

A more positive note was sounded by David Zant, president and chief merchandising officer for Belk. “We are looking forward to a strong holiday weekend through Cyber Monday,” Zant said. “Our customers are excited by our promotions, and boots are always our hottest item. Activewear will be popular this season, particularly as gifts. Our customers are ready to embrace the holiday, especially when the weather is cooler, and they can take advantage of doorbusters and other special sales.”

Penney’s is riding the momentum it saw in the third quarter when comparable sales rose 6.4 percent. With the good holiday start, “We think we will carry the momentum through the rest of the quarter,” Ellison said. He cited two big factors that should sustain the performance — inventory depth which didn’t exist a year ago when categories such as boots, small electronics, sheets and towels ran out, and a reinvigorated online business including an improved mobile app.

For Penney’s, private brands will be holiday bestsellers, such as Arizona boots and St. John’s Bay crewneck sweaters, and Cooks coffeemakers, which have all been sharply marked down.

Generally, for department and specialty stores that emphasize apparel, there have been several negative factors hurting sales, among them a shift in consumer spending away from fashion and toward home improvements, big ticket items, autos, restaurants, vacations and other types of experiences. World affairs, from the Paris terrorist attacks to the presidential campaign in the U.S., have further distracted people from shopping.

But Ellison told WWD, “If you look at the core customer and core demographic for J.C. Penney, we see no headwinds.” Ellison characterized Penney’s target audience as primarily households with between $45,000 and $90,000 in annual income, though he also said Penney’s attracts many customers falling outside those income levels, including many Millennials.

At Macy’s Herald Square, Lundgren said the crowd of 15,000 was very similar in size to last year. “I stood at the front door keeping track. It was completely solidly packed with traffic and everyone was really well-behaved. It was a great crowd, a combination of young Millennials, more mature customers and some tourists.”

Lundgren said that after leaving Herald Square, he visited Macy’s stores in Queens and in the Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City, N.Y., where he observed “strong” traffic. “It was very encouraging. Now I am counting on strong traffic today, tomorrow, Sunday and to have a great Cyber Monday. I would say it’s been a very positive start to the holiday season.”

Asked if Black Friday 2015 could be bigger than Black Friday 2014, Lundgren replied, “I don’t know the answer to that question. Right about now, traffic should be building till 4 or 5 today.”

So far this year business at Macy’s hasn’t been better than last year, but Lundgren said that with Thursday’s opening, there’s a “clear change” in shopping behavior, fueling some optimism for the rest of the year.

He said Macy’s did “particularly well with Millennials shopping the store, and that activewear, both functional and spectator styles, were strong selling areas. Other categories that did well, Lundgren noted, were handbags, particularly Michael Kors, and FitBit, Samsung watches and Charter Club cashmere sweaters, which up until Thursday evening hadn’t been selling.

“The deals are very strong this year, particularly in cold-weather categories,” Lundgren said. “You are going to see of lot of deals in coats and boots. All of us [retailers] have more inventory than we planned to have.”

According to Lundgren, the stretch from its 6 p.m. Thanksgiving Day opening till the midnight closing tonight will be Macy’s biggest volume period of the year, though he declined to project what that amount could be. For the third quarter, Macy’s net sales declined 5.2 percent.

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