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There’s wind at their backs as retailers head deeper into the Christmas season.
This story first appeared in the November 28, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
That’s the view from a spectrum of stores from Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Target and Scoop, to web sites HauteLook and Ideeli. They and many others all reported business and traffic over this past Black Friday weekend surpassed last year’s. Among the biggest early trends boding well for the season were:
• Surging sales online and via mobile devices.
• People shopping as much for themselves as for gifts, meaning there’s still a lot of gift shopping to be done.
• Record Black Friday sales cited by several store executives and industry analysts.
Boots, denim, corduroy, kids puffer jackets, fine jewelry, toys and flat-screen TVs proved to be among the best sellers, while outerwear and cold weather accessories were disappointing at some stores because of the seasonably mild weather. The flip side of the warm temperatures was that they motivated people to get out of their homes and into the stores.
All of the extended hours, even into Thanksgiving Day itself, and the industry-wide blitz of promotions seemed to pay off. A record 226 million shoppers visited stores and Web sites over Black Friday weekend, up from 212 million last year, according to the National Retail Federation. The trade organization also said 28.7 million people shopped online and at stores on Thanksgiving Day, up from 22.2 million last year.
The average spend was $398.62 this weekend, up from $365.34 last year, and the total came to an estimated $52.4 billion, versus $45 billion last year. But there’s still caution, with the NRF conservatively predicting a 2.8 percent retail gain for the holiday season.
Last weekend, the online component represented 37.8 percent of the total shopping, or $150.53 per person, making Web site executives the most jubilant. However, retailers overall were less ebullient, even though they were generally pleased, and even baffled in some cases, to have, at least for the moment, overcome the challenges of the economy, low consumer confidence and tepid October sales. Americans are disillusioned by their ineffective government, feeling squeezed by inflation and depressed home values, and discouraged by the lack of job opportunities. Yet they’re hitting the malls and opening their wallets, albeit judiciously, for something they really want if it’s well-priced.
“It’s perplexing, but we are in a good place,” said Kathryn Bufano, president of Belk Inc., particularly after what she called a record Black Friday this year for the Charlotte, N.C.-based department store chain.
“People are mad at the government, but they are out shopping,” noted Michael Londrigan, chairman of the fashion merchandising department of LIM College. “When you look at consumer confidence as a benchmark, it doesn’t seem to reflect what’s happening at retail today.”
“We had record results for the Black Friday weekend,” said Lord & Taylor’s chief executive officer, Brendan Hoffman. “There was softness in cold weather categories, but we made it up in other areas,” such as shoes, handbags, watches and cosmetics, Hoffman said.
“More consumers than ever turned out for retailers’ Black Friday promotions, a promising sign for the economic recovery,” said NRF president and ceo Matthew Shay.
“What feels different this year is the consumer has a better understanding about their financial situation. They know where they stand with their jobs, if they have them, and are less likely to be as exposed to the financial markets,” observed Terry Lundgren, chairman, president and ceo of Macy’s Inc. “There’s definitely consumer demand. They’ve got money to spend.”
They also have a better sense of the marketplace, added ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin: “Consumers are well educated. They’re going online,” to research products and prices. “It’s very premeditated. They are going to stores with the express purpose of knowing what they are going to buy.”
With the extended hours for shopping, November sales, which will be reported this week by many major chains, could be somewhat skewed compared with a year ago. “Usually, that’s not in the footnote, but everyone was so public about the extra hours, I would think that would be a point of discussion,” Bufano said, though Belk does not release monthly sales.
Store executives and retail analysts will also be discussing if it was worth it to open doors hours earlier, as many retailers did. “It’s awfully expensive to keep stores open at those hours. You have to pay employees overtime or time and a half, and weigh what is the incremental sales value versus the expense,” said one retailer who maintained the same hours as last year. “Then there is the human aspect, in terms of asking employees to work on the holiday.” Some balk at the prospect; others seize the opportunity, the retailer acknowledged.
According to ShopperTrak, which monitors sales and traffic at malls, Black Friday sales increased 6.6 percent over last year to $11.4 billion, representing the biggest dollar amount ever spent during the day, and the biggest percent increase since the 8.3 percent gain in 2007. Black Friday foot traffic rose 5.1 percent from last year.
Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, could barely contain his enthusiasm. “It was by far the strongest Black Friday ever, up at least 8 percent by our count, outpacing even our full Christmas season forecast of plus 6.5 percent. This has been by far the greatest display of American consumers at work, in value retailers, in midtier stores, and even aspirational luxury venues such as the premium outlet malls — all packed to the gills before midnight.”
The NPD Group was more conservative, estimating consumers on Black Friday spent 3 percent more than last year, although self-purchasing grew 44 percent. NPD called the early results “encouraging” but preliminary. In terms of conversion rates, mass merchants, warehouse clubs and department stores did the best, said Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief industry analyst. However, as the weekend continued, Cohen said the crowds appeared thinner than last year. “Despite the early surge, our early results are showing less shoppers but a higher rate of spending. So why the mixed signals? Consumers clearly were on the hunt for the deals and the stores were, by far, the busiest during the early ‘discount hours’ and much less so during the afternoon hours,” of Black Friday.
Aside from a robust Black Friday and a consumer base apparently primed to shop, other factors are elevating expectations for a decent holiday outcome. For one, inventories and promotions have been carefully planned and tailored down to the local store level at such companies as Macy’s, Nordstrom and Saks, suggesting healthy fourth-quarter margins. “We are going to see more promotions closer to Christmas, but there is less concern this year. Retailers are doing a better job at planning promotions, and inventories are running a lot leaner than in the past,” said LIM’s Londrigan.
Also, the calendar provides an extra day between Thanksgiving and Christmas, 30 versus 29 last year, so there’s more time to shop. The day after Christmas — when stores get frantic handling gift returns and unleash fresh promotions to start clearing any excess merchandise — falls on a Monday this year, and retailers are pleased about that. Many employers are giving their workers the day off, which should help crowd up the stores. Last year, the day after Christmas was a Sunday, which is less desirable for retailers because people go to church or stay at home to watch football. Also, blue laws in certain states keep stores closed on Sunday.
Black Friday remains the biggest volume day of the year for most stores, though it isn’t necessarily a barometer for the season. It’s only when Black Friday is bad that retailers are pretty sure the season overall will be disappointing. “It’s just one day. It remains to be seen whether consumers will sustain this behavior through the holiday shopping season,” Martin noted.
After Thanksgiving weekend, business tapers off. Cyber Monday is geared to keep up the momentum. But HauteLook’s founder and ceo, Adam Bernhard, sees Cyber Monday as a big day but “definitely not the biggest. The biggest online traffic is usually Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week.” He suggested that people want a break from a Black Friday weekend of intense shopping and resume later in the week. “Our traffic was up tremendously on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday, about 40 percent. That’s a good signal for what’s going to happen,” said Bernhard.
The second biggest retail day of the year is the Saturday before Christmas, known as Super Saturday. The day after Christmas and the Friday before Christmas are also very important days.
Here, a look at retailers’ performance by sector:
DEPARTMENT STORES PROMOTE AND PROVIDE VALUE
“Customers seem to be reacting to our merchandise offer and doorbusters,” J.C. Penney group executive vice president Mike Theilmann, told WWD. On Black Friday, Theilmann cited two basic waves of shoppers that seemed to be prowling the malls for deals — “the all-nighters,” who tended to be younger and might have hit competitors like Wal-Mart, Target and Macy’s before shopping Penney’s, which opened later, at 4 a.m., than those stores but the same as last year, and early-morning shoppers, who may have come first to Penney’s. “The family thing surprised me — parents with the kids out at 3:30 or 4 a.m. I saw more kids in strollers and young adults, more so than last year,” said Theilmann who visited about a half-dozen Penney’s in the Dallas area early Black Friday.
Midnight openings Friday boosted sales at The Bon-Ton Stores Inc. when the chain offered over 500 doorbusters. “Price and item were the drivers,” said Barbara Schrantz, chief operating officer. Bestsellers were seen in the store’s newly launched young men’s brand, Mambo, as well as men’s flannels, fleeces, dress shirts, belts, sleepwear and socks, many under the store’s Ruff Hewn label. The top gift, Schrantz said, was a plaid mitten with a built-in ice scraper. Women’s shoes, particularly the Emu Australian fleece boot, were strong, while fleecewear, sweaters and activewear, particularly from Calvin Klein, were also standouts.
At Belk, “The customers just loved boots,” Bufano said. “We sold hundreds of thousands” primarily via doorbuster deals, including Rampage boots priced $19.99, private label boots priced $39.99 to $59.99, as well as Uggs and Frye at full price. “Luggage was like crazy good,” she added. “Home was excellent — basic pillows, mattresses with pads, sheets, promoted at great prices, definitely. Kids and jewelry were good. We brought in 29-inch flat-screen TVs for the first time, for $149.99 and $129.99 with a rebate, and they sold out online in 10 minutes. People like to have a bargain.”
MIDNIGHT AT THE MALLS
Tim Steffan, senior vice president of the Eastern U.S. region for mall operator The Macerich Co., observed stronger traffic this year, and predicted, “Sales at the end of the season are going to be more robust than 2010,” but not by much. Steffan noted Macerich was forecasting 2011 holiday sales slightly below the NRF’s predication of 2.8 percent growth. “We understand where the world is,” he said.
California malls played host to a couple of special events. Singer JoJo performed live at midnight at Westfield Culver City, and a “midnight madness” party was held at the Westfield Galleria at Roseville with a DJ and giveaways such as $100 gift cards. “It will end up driving incremental people to the mall and is ultimately something that is here to stay. It provided us the ability to do more fun things to engage the shoppers,” said Alan Cohen, executive vice president of marketing at Westfield LLC.
SHARP PRICES AT SPECIALTY STORES
Gary Schoenfeld, ceo and president of Pacific Sunwear of California Inc., said traditional malls “reclaimed” Black Friday from outlets. “Malls were extremely busy. I think, with the combination of big box retailers opening — Target, Walmart and Macy’s — and with so many more malls open, outlet malls were no longer the singular destination.”
Linda Chang, senior marketing manager at the Los Angeles-based Forever 21, said long lines formed at the 179 Forever 21 stores that opened at midnight. “We saw bigger lines this year,” she said. “We had hundreds of styles that were on promotion. The ones that were specifically Black Friday were really popular like the $9 denim deal.” Cardigans priced at $12 for two, were also bestsellers. “Prior to this month, people were worried because of a pretty soft October, but what I’m seeing is that people, despite the economy, are willing to shop. They were waiting for the deals to come, which is why everyone is having a great response to Black Friday.”
Lucky Brand ceo Dave DeMattei reported traffic at the Westfield Century City mall in Los Angeles wasn’t overwhelming on Black Friday morning, but he stressed Black Friday doesn’t make or break holiday performance. “We have a lot of momentum going into it, so we are very optimistic, but the whole season doesn’t ride on one day,” DeMattei said.
Guess Inc. president Nancy Shachtman said the L.A.-based contemporary apparel and accessories retailer reduced promotional activity. Instead of offering 60 percent off of markdowns like last year, Guess offered 40 percent off of markdowns after a Black Friday promotion of 30 percent off the entire store that ran from midnight to 1 p.m. “My strategy was to be cleaner, less promotional, and I was able to do that because I have a lot less inventory,” said Shachtman. “I had a lot more regular price selling this year, ridiculously more.”
Michael Kaplan, ceo and co-founder of plus-size fast-fashion retailer Fashion to Figure, said, “On the whole, it was a much better year over last year in terms of consumer spending, and comparable sales were up 7 to 10 percent.” At Planet Blue, an upscale fashion retailer, “Our customers research and are going to shop where they can to get the best deals,” said Elle Cimmarusti, director of store operations. “We definitely had an increase this year, about 15 to 20 percent and we are expecting the holiday season to be that as well.”
WEB SITES RIDE THE WAVE
Ideeli.com more than doubled its revenue on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday from last year, said Barbara Levy, senior vice president of retail at Ideeli, a flash-sale site. Visits to the site increased 30 percent and average orders were higher, making the conversion rate over 50 percent, she said. Ideeli’s mobile business rose over 200 percent and revenue from mobile was up 230 percent. “There’s just as much hype and expectations from consumers that there will be great values out there for Cyber Monday.”
Fiona Dias, chief strategy officer of ShopRunner.com, called the holiday weekend a “game of hopscotch” as retailers staged pre-Black Friday sales between Monday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving. “Mobile traffic was up 300 percent. The iPad had the highest conversion of visitors to buy, more so than on a desktop,” she said. Dias said the average basket size was the same as last year, about $100, and that whenever the stores opened on Thanksgiving Day, their Web sites lit up. E-commerce was abetted by those ordering online and being able to pick up at stores, Dias noted.
Ben Fischman, founder and ceo of Rue La La, said, “Mobile sales continue to blow us away,” representing 37 percent of the total business, with sales via the iPad representing 50 percent of all business this past weekend.” The ceo said traffic continued throughout the weekend, with women’s apparel and shoes strong categories, as well as higher-end home offerings.
“There was very good traffic in the malls,” said Stephen I. Sadove, chairman and ceo of Saks Inc., who was out and about in shopping centers. “I spent four or five hours at an outlet mall in Virginia. In years past, you saw a lull in the afternoon. This year, I saw traffic building.”
“We hit the ball out of the park,” said Susan Davidson, ceo of Scoop and Zac Posen. “We had great business Friday and Saturday,” particularly with fur vests, fur trapper hats and fashion outerwear, including $1,295 to $1,500 shearlings; Duvetica outerwear, $800 to $1,000, and Burberry outerwear, $1,200 to $1,500. Boots, particularly Matt Bernson tundra boots; Scoop brand cashmere sweaters, $220 for men’s, $178 to $315 for women; corduroy pants, and waxed jeans did well. “I think customers were just waiting for a good excuse to go out shopping,” said Davidson. “There seems to be a very buoyant mood, and it’s not just New York. We see it at our stores in Dallas, Boston, Chicago and East Hampton. Those stores were particularly strong.”
Brooks Brothers also reported a record Black Friday for all channels, but didn’t expect it. “We were somewhat pessimistic about business going into the season because the last three to four weeks have been soft,” said Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer. “There didn’t seem to be a sense of urgency.”
Shoppers got started at Sears at 4 a.m. on Friday and 5 a.m. at Kmart. “On the Sears side, we had longer lines than last year, about 150 to 400 people on average lined up at stores,” said Tom Aiello, division vice president at Sears. “We gave coffee and hot cocoa and some families came dressed in their pajamas.” Tools and electronics were popular, as expected. “The interesting one was fine jewelry,” Aiello said. “It’s a category every store manager is citing.” Sears offered 60 to 70 percent discounts on fine jewelry as well as doorbusters. “Inventory is holding strong.…It’s too early to speculate about the season, but I’m definitely encouraged by the fact that our clients formed longer lines outside the stores,” Aiello said.
Target opened its doors at midnight on Black Friday. Dusty Jenkins, vice president of communications, said “I noticed more young people than before, lots of teenagers were out and even kids.” Target’s biggest deals included the iPod Nano for $129, with $15 Target gift card, and the iPod Touch, $195. Slippers, $10 pajama sleep sets and robes at 40 percent off were strong-selling items. An advertised 46-inch Westinghouse HD TV for $298, a $250 savings, sold out in seven minutes, Jenkins said.