Retail Caution Reigns After Holiday Kicks Off

Midnight madness materialized just as retailers wished, but there wasn’t enough of the same old Black Friday magic to juice up the mood for the season.

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Midnight madness materialized just as retailers wished, but there wasn’t enough of the same old Black Friday magic in malls and along major shopping avenues through last week to juice up the mood for the holiday season.

This story first appeared in the November 26, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

That leaves retailers prepared to stay the course and still confident, after a week’s worth of intense promoting and extended store hours, that they’ll meet holiday goals, conservatively set at 3 to 4 percent ahead on average. They also believe consumer confidence is holding up, though there’s plenty of uncertainty with the fiscal cliff looming and with Northeast cities still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, which cost retailers billions of dollars in business. For fashion retailers, it will be impossible to entirely make up the lost volumes, though companies involved in construction and home furnishings will see a lift as communities rebuild.

Terry J. Lundgren, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Macy’s Inc., characterized Black Friday as “similar” to last year, while at Bloomingdale’s, a division of Macy’s, “We have a game plan and a strategic plan and you tweak here and there for things, but we are not changing our game plan,” said Michael Gould, chairman and ceo.

“We are hitting our targets,” said Linda Chang, Forever 21’s senior marketing manager. “It is a little early for us to tell, but in the past two weeks, we have been seeing good, strong sales growth.”

“Last week didn’t move the needle that much,” said another retail ceo, who requested anonymity.

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“December is a big month. A lot can happen,” cautioned Kathryn Bufano, president and chief merchandising officer for Belk Inc., the Charlotte, N.C.-based Southern regional department store chain. Bufano said Belk had an “unbelievably good, record-volume” Black Friday. It helped that Belk opened at midnight on Thanksgiving, three hours earlier than in 2011, and planned aggressively by offering over 300 doorbusters from midnight to 1 p.m. on Black Friday.

“Many of us were out in the stores. It was very packed from midnight to 2:30 or 3 a.m., but it wasn’t a mob scene,” Bufano said. Traffic settled down from 3 to 5 a.m., helping the company restock and tidy up for the next wave of shoppers. “It was very strong from 5 all the way through,” Bufano said.

Industry-wide, electronics, smartphones, toys, small kitchen appliances, footwear (particularly boots), coats and sweaters carried the day and were buoyed by discounts typically at 40 to 60 percent off, and extended to before, during and after Thanksgiving. Best Buy, for example, staged “a countdown” to Thanksgiving, offering deals every day leading up to Thanksgiving.

In a very bullish report on the season’s start, the National Retail Federation, which has projected a 4.1 percent increase in total holiday spending, reported total spending for the four days ending Sunday hit $59.1 billion, a 12.8 percent increase from the $52.4 billion spent during the comparable 2011 period. Including projections for Sunday, the average holiday shopper spent $423, up 6.3 percent from $398 last year.

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The NRF said apparel and accessories were the most purchased category, favored by 57.7 percent of buyers versus 51.4 percent a year ago. The percentage purchasing gift cards also jumped, moving to 32.6 percent from 23.1 percent last year, according to research compiled for the NRF by BIGinsight. Matthew Shay, president and ceo of the NRF, said “Everyone I’ve spoken to feels very bullish that the momentum from the weekend will carry into Cyber Monday. Everyone has held back some special deals available only for it, and shoppers are looking forward to that.”

The NRF projects 129.2 million shoppers will be online on Monday looking to buy, up from 122.8 million in 2011 and 106.9 million in 2010. About 85 percent of online retailers — both pure play and multichannel —will have special promotions for the day.

Thanksgiving hours encouraged early shopping, especially among younger consumers. Twenty-eight percent of weekend shoppers — about 35 million people — were at stores before midnight on Black Friday, up from 24.4 percent, or about 29 million, last year. Forty percent of those age 18 to 34 participated in Thanksgiving night shopping. The share engaging in Thanksgiving shopping in 2009 was just 3 percent.

A less-robust report on Black Friday itself came from ShopperTrak. “Consumers responded to Thursday’s promotions greater than we expected and better than retailers might have expected, which siphoned off some dollars from Black Friday,” said Bill Martin, chairman of ShopperTrak, which estimated Black Friday generated $11.2 billion in sales in the U.S. this year, versus $11.4 billion in 2011.”

Martin said that Thursday and Friday combined would exceed $11.4 billion, though he didn’t have a specific estimate. “It was a reasonably good start for the holiday,” Martin said. “If the volume was down in the $10 billion range, that might have been cause for concern. If you don’t have a good day on Black Friday, it’s hard to catch up.” ShopperTrak bases its estimates on data from 40,000 sensors in North America monitoring traffic in the stores, government statistics, proprietary retail data and some of its algorithms.

By the weekend, retailers were fixated on measuring the impact of their Thanksgiving store openings, which were more widespread this year. It’s believed the Thursday openings, rather than encouraging shoppers to buy more items, just spurred them to shop that day and less on Black Friday. Also, some retailers questioned whether the volumes attained on Thursday were enough to rationalize the costs of keeping stores open on the holiday, though there was a consensus that retailers open on Thanksgiving probably grabbed some business from stores that stayed closed.

“Increased hours do not increase the demand pool. Thursday didn’t make a huge amount of difference,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. He suggested Thursday openings just shifted sales rather than amount to plus sales.

Specialty retailers felt that earlier Black Friday hours were effective, though in many cases, crowds leveled off pretty quickly. “Because of the Wal-Marts and Kmarts of the world and their earlier deals, I think that softened a little bit of the traffic, but there were still significant lines,” said Chang of Forever 21, which had 313 of its 458 stores open at midnight.

Gap Inc., across all its brands, had 1,100 stores open Thanksgiving. “We felt that there was good demand pretty early on. It dropped down and then there was steady flow in the early morning hours through the rest of the day,” said Mark Breitbard, president of Gap North America. “We will be studying this to see how the traffic patterns have changed by opening a little bit earlier to understand the consumer dynamics. A lot of people said there wasn’t as much frenzy, but we still saw lines out the door.”

Gary Schoenfeld, ceo of Pacific Sunwear of California Inc., believes the shift to Thursday night, which he called a “sea change” initiated last year, has retailers better positioned for business at their full-price locations. “The outlet malls used to own the jump-start on Thursday night. Now, it is clear that most all malls around the country are open, and you are seeing full-price malls win back that Thursday night business,” he said.

Retailers — brick-and-mortar and online — staged Cyber Monday sales before Cyber Monday, which as a consequence will lose some steam this year. It’s considered the biggest volume day of the year online, but retailers assured that both Cyber Monday and Black Friday are still very significant volume days, even as business gets spread out more before and after those days.

Apparel wasn’t top of mind for most consumers. “People do not feel the urgency to shop for clothing on Thanksgiving,” said Hana Ben-Shabat, a partner in the retail practice of A.T. Kearney consulting firm, which projected a modest 2 to 3 percent increase in total retail sales last week. “There’s an overall perception that [apparel] promotions will continue. On other hand, consumer electronics, toys and home got a lot of attention. There was a lot of advertising on doorbusters and people know doorbusters are in small quantities. Apparel was not a winner last week, but there is time to recover that.”


Belk’s Bufano said the store sold “hundreds of thousands of boots in a day,” including Rampage boots, priced at $19.99. Sweaters, denim, small kitchen appliances such as single-serve coffeemakers and mixers, luggage and tablets were also bestsellers. “We feel we are going to have a good Christmas, better than 5 percent ahead.” She acknowledged that usually there’s a lull in traffic the first week of December, and Belk hopes to counter that with a strong cyber effort at the beginning of this week and a “Santa fest” Saturday at all Belk stores.

Brendan Hoffman, president and ceo of The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., visited his stores in Pennsylvania on Black Friday. “I have never seen malls and stores this crowded. It looked like the last Saturday before Christmas.” Bon-Ton did best with soft home, shoes and cold weather apparel, which “bodes well for the next five weeks,” Hoffman said. “It is a long stretch between now and Christmas, but there are reasons to be optimistic judging by the traffic.”

“We were very pleased with the weekend,” said Bloomingdale’s Gould. “There was a terrific beat in the stores, with a lot of tourists at 59th Street. Business was pretty good across the board,” he added, citing men’s wear, sweaters, cosmetics and coats.

J.C. Penney broke from its controversial everyday low price policy by running sales on certain items. People queued up before 6 a.m. store openings Friday for specials like $25 women’s boots. Bestsellers included junior sweaters, men’s flannels, women’s pashmina scarves, bed pillows and $8 kitchen electronics, according to Penney’s Twitter news feed.

Von Maur enjoyed “nice increases” at its 27 stores and online business, according to Joy Place, vice president of merchandising at the Davenport, Iowa-based retailer. “It’s pretty encouraging considering we are not a store for the big day-after-Thanksgiving promotions,” Place said. “What was marked down before is still marked down.”

Von Maur opened only an hour earlier than usual Friday and did well with handbags, contemporary sportswear, shoes, cosmetics, men’s half-zip sweaters, Coach Legacy, Michelle and Michael Kors watches, Kate Spade cross-body bags and Tommy Bahama sweaters, while cold weather apparel lagged.


RetailNext, which provides a technology platform for retailers to measure and understand shopper behavior, said specialty retailers were more productive on Black Friday 2012 than a year ago. Although overall traffic to the segment was down 5.6 percent, total sales rose a healthy 16.2 percent due to conversion rates up 2.3 percentage points, and average values seen as 20 percent better than a year ago. The busiest period was from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with 58.5 percent of the day’s shopping trips and 60.2 percent of the day’s sales happening then. Black Friday’s peak sales hour was noon to 1 p.m., and traffic peaked from 2 to 3 p.m.

“Business obviously is more and more competitive every year,” said Jerri Ulves, vice president, general merchandise manager, at 135-unit Anaheim, Calif.-based retailer Styles For Less, who singled out knit bottoms, jeggings and lightweight sweaters as strong sellers. “We offered an entire-store deal, which most of our competitors did. That seemed to work for customers this year because they weren’t going after specific items. They were looking for multiple items and a lot of different product. I don’t know if it was weather driven or fashion driven, but it was exciting to see them buying multiple items.”

“I would expect aggressive promos in the marketplace to continue,” said Gap North America’s Breitbard, who pointed to sweaters, knit tops, colored jeans and pajama sets as brisk sellers. “As we have been saying all year, we have been trying to present a pretty balanced approach, and we have felt confidence in our assortment.”

C. Wonder, the 11-unit retailer owned by Christopher Burch, distributed scratch-off cards with rewards at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The same day, it offered 30 percent off already marked down goods. On Friday, up until 8 a.m., C. Wonder offered an additional 50 percent of off markdowns, plus 30 percent off the entire store. “We had a very high rate of conversion,” said Amy Shecter, president. “Most importantly, our product is so much better this year than last year,” particularly with personalizing of products.

Jacinto Romero, director of operations at Planet Blue, said the five-unit Southern California retailer nurtured a relaxed atmosphere on Black Friday. It offered free manicures and juice, and a 10 percent discount off purchases of $100 and above, and a 20 percent off purchases of $200 and above. Romero said, “We adopted a system that said as long as you shop in the store, you are going to get something. We were able to beat last year’s numbers.”


Luxury retailers sat back, as they typically do during the holiday, though clearance racks have been visible for many days and designer sales on current goods should break this week. Saks Fifth Avenue said it was less promotional than last year.

“I think we are going to make the season, though I don’t know whether we will make up for the week we lost because of Sandy. Our three big stores are in New York City,” said Susan Davidson, ceo of Scoop and Zac Posen. She added, “We were very pleasantly surprised by business Friday and Saturday,” which yielded a low double-digit increase. Scoop label cashmere and novelty sweaters; fashion outerwear, particularly from Sam, Paul Smith, Montclair and Burberry, and boots, driven by Rag & Bone, propelled the post-Thanksgiving business.

“The luxury sector is not about Thanksgiving. The numbers were OK, not great but the business is fine. The good thing is that the consumer is back shopping after the storm,” said one luxury source.

“It was somewhat of a disappointing weekend,” said Lou Amendola, executive vice president of merchandising at Brooks Brothers. Because inventory levels are in check, the company’s retail stores were much less promotional than last year and shopping was light. “There was not a lot of early shopping,” Amendola said. “It was slow and difficult for us to make last year’s number.” Even online, sales fell under plan, down to single-digit growth.

He said that because the calendar allows for 34 shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, versus 32 last year, “People feel they still have time.” That could cause Brooks to pull the promotional trigger. “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to stay the course and not promote,” he said.

Bob Mitchell, co-president of the Mitchells Family of Stores, was also underwhelmed. “This weekend is the smallest weekend in the November-December period for us. It was lackluster and very uneven between stores. There was no energy and traffic was slow, particularly on Saturday.” He said because the stores did not offer special hours or promotions, even those people who were out were “shopping more than buying.” Women’s apparel and men’s sportswear were the strongest categories. “For us, business really comes in the last 10 days. It’s way too early for us to gauge at this point. The two Saturdays before Christmas is when the numbers are critical,” Mitchell noted.

Business at Stanley Korshak in Dallas was down slightly last weekend although online sales continued to grow dramatically, according to owner Crawford Brock. Standouts were sweaters, knits and handbags. “The day after the election, maybe because we’re in Texas, it just fell off a cliff,” Brock said, referring to its brick-and-mortar business. “It’s slowly coming back. Last week was OK. We were up Friday and down Saturday.” He anticipates December will be very difficult with business dropping about 5 percent. The plan was for a double-digit gain.


ComScore reported that online purchases on Black Friday hit $1.04 billion, 26 percent above the level of 2011, while Thanksgiving e-commerce sales rose 32 percent to $633 million. That put online purchases for the first 23 days of the holiday season at $13.7 billion, 16 percent above the corresponding period last year.

Steve Yankovich, eBay Inc.’s vice president of mobile, contends that mobile is “reshaping this year’s holiday shopping season.” EBay saw a 153 percent increase in domestic mobile traffic, while PayPal cited a 193 percent increase in global mobile payment, and GSI Commerce quoted a 198 percent increase in global mobile sales. Mobile transactions were most popular between 3 and 4 p.m. Eastern.

Rue La La ceo Ben Fischman also said midafternoon was the busiest period among consumers who returned from early morning store excursions. Black Friday sales on the flash-sale site were up 53 percent, with transactions at 3 p.m. and after surging by 190 percent. Of the post-Thanksgiving dinner sales, 60 percent were conducted on a mobile device, with the iPad representing 50 percent of total mobile sales. Fischman also said that half of Friday’s sales came from mobile. “Interestingly, not only we were selling expected merchandise, but very strong sales of vintage, one-of-a-kind items — items in the $10,000 to $40,000 price points,” Fischman said.

At Amazon.com, a spokesperson said the company sees this season so far as the “best holiday shopping season we’ve ever had.” The site’s Black Friday deals started four days early on Nov. 19, unveiling more “lightning deals’ than ever before.


There were lines of shoppers waiting for Target to open its doors at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. “We had 3,000 people waiting in Dallas,” said a spokesman, adding that electronics and big-ticket items such as big-screen TVs were popular. “Historically, when we’ve opened in the wee hours of the morning, we’ve seen the deal hunters looking for that one item,” he said. “At 9 p.m., we saw more cross-shopping and a different demographic — parents with children. They were not only grabbing doorbusters like TVs, but also buying apparel and home decor, bedding and sheets sets and warm, cozy throws.”

Wal-Mart U.S. reported its best Black Friday events in its history. The retailer, which opened its doors at 8 p.m., two hours earlier than last year, said it saw larger crowds and a significant response to its one-hour guarantee on key electronic items. When the store opened, customers were buying gaming consoles, video games, DVDs, Furbys and fashion dolls. At 10 p.m., consumers showed interest in electronics, including big-screen TVs, tablets, laptops and digital cameras. There was a large turnout for advertised items such as iPad 2s, Emerson 32-inch LCD TVs and LG Blu-ray players.

During the peak hours of 8 p.m. to 12 a.m., Wal-Mart processed almost 10 million register transactions, nearly 5,000 items per second and sold more than 1.8 million towels, 1.3 million televisions, 1.3 million dolls and 250,000 bicycles.

“It’s not just about Black Friday anymore,” a Best Buy spokeswoman said. “Thanksgiving Day for bestbuy.com is typically our biggest day of the year.” Toshiba TVs were a hot ticket along with tablets, e-readers and smartphones.

The Container Store swings into extended hours the first weekend of December through Christmas Eve. Kip Tindell, chairman and ceo, said he has no interest in opening on Thanksgiving. “Really wildly expanded hours means you need more staff,” he said. “Service levels suffer if you expand hours too much.” Tindell relies on The Container Store’s unique products, including its selection of gift wrap, ribbon and bows and stocking stuffers.

Black Friday sales were up 17 percent. “Our online sales are increasing at three times the rate of stores,” he said. “Black Friday online sales were up 70 percent over last year.”


Deborah Weinswig, broadlines analyst at Citi, continued to expect year-on-year holiday sales increases of between 2.5 and 3.5 percent based on Black Friday activity, although the mild temperatures heading into the weekend left her “concerned about inventory and overall sales, driven by weakness in seasonal [merchandise]. We were also on all of the Web sites which were sluggish due to strong traffic.”

Johnson at Customer Growth Partners said he believed Macy’s, Saks, Gap, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany’s, The Children’s Place and other retailers concentrated in areas that were along the path of Sandy made up some ground last week with some pent-up demand. He also singled out Penney’s as having one of its best traffic weekends in over a year, spurred by a 48-page brochure that dropped before Black Friday and offered great deals, including $8 cookware that sold out.

“On a net basis, this is going to be a so-so holiday,” which he put at up 2.8 percent to $557 billion, from $542 billion in 2011. Clearly, it will be slower in terms of year-over-year growth. Last year was 5.8 percent, the year before that was 5.2 percent.

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