Crowds turned out for Black Friday sales, spurring retailers' ongoing optimism of a strong season.

So far so good — but there’s still a long way to go.

Traffic counts and sales results from stores and mall owners over the last two days indicate that holiday business is on track so far, keeping them optimistic for a healthy fourth quarter — although uncertainties remain.

This is one of the biggest weekends of the year for the retail industry, with an estimated 164 million Americans going shopping Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday, according to the National Retail Federation.

But retail executives caution that the Black Friday stretch — Thanksgiving Day through Sunday — is not necessarily an indicator for the  season overall, and that there’s still five weeks of holiday selling ahead. Concerns center around swings in the stock market, rising interest rates and fuel prices, inflation, tariffs and shifting consumer sentiments.

Still, most sources suggested the positive spending patterns seen through most of the fall will hold up through the rest of the year. Next year is more uncertain.

Cold-weather apparel and accessories, boots, fine jewelry and toys were leading categories on Thanksgiving Day and into Friday afternoon, the stores indicated.

“It’s been good, but Black Friday is just the start of the holiday season,” Jeff Gennette, chairman and chief executive officer of Macy’s Inc., told WWD on Friday morning, referring to online and store traffic. “There are a number of our stores where we do actual traffic counts,” Gennette said. “So far, so good.”

While some retailers started promoting Christmas gifts right after Halloween, Gennette sees the bulk of the holiday season “compressed between Black Friday and Christmas. That’s really the season.”

“The coat category is off the hook. It’s very strong and it’s been that way all the way through the back half of the third quarter to date,” Gennette said, adding that boots and cold weather accessories have been strong as well. “Amazing fashion” as well as innovative fabrics, and the blast of cold weather from Siberia have given an extra kick to the cold weather business.

Asked if this week’s Black Friday business is a barometer for what might happen through the holiday season, Gennette replied, “No, but it’s a good start. It’s too early to comment on the overall season.”

Hopes for a strong Black Friday failed to cheer the markets — although no retailer is pushing the panic button just yet.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 0.73 percent, or 179 points, on Friday to 24,286 in a shorter-than-usual trading session due to the Thanksgiving holiday, while the S&P 500 ended the day 0.66 percent lower at 2,632.56. This was the worst Black Friday for both indices in eight years.

Led by a sell-off in energy stocks as investors continued to be jittery over the falling oil price, losses were across the board and retailers were no exception. Losers included Kohl’s Corp., down 3.8 percent to $63.83; Urban Outfitters Inc., down 3.3 percent to $36.16; Target Corp., down 2.8 percent to $67.35, and Lululemon Athletica Inc., down 2.4 percent to $120.86.

Faring slightly better, but still declining, were Macy’s Inc., down 1.8 percent to $32.01; Nordstrom Inc., down 0.8 percent to $51.54; Amazon, down 0.97 percent to $1,502.06, and TJX Cos. Inc., down 0.65 percent to $45.86.

On the upside were Canada Goose Holdings Inc., up 4.2 percent to $68.04; L Brands Inc., up 2 percent to $29.97; Walmart Inc., up 0.99 percent to $95.10, and Gap Inc., up 0.7 percent to $26.

A spokeswoman for Mastercard SpendingPulse, which tracks register sales at thousands of retailers, said “initial early numbers are showing that overall retail sales this [Black Friday] morning are in line with the season’s expectations.” The company forecasts retail sales will show a gain of about 5 percent.

“Right now, Mastercard SpendingPulse is projecting that Black Friday is expected to be more than 40 percent larger than an average day in the 2018 holiday season,” the Mastercard spokeswoman said.

Mastercard noted in a report that the cold weather in the East and wet weather in the West “may be driving some sales volume online, especially in the department store sector.” The company said online sales appear to “be filling in any weather-related soft spots in brick and mortar sales to help the overall sales figures.”

By type of retailers, the best performers early on during Black Friday included clothing stores and specialty apparel retailers, electronics stores and home goods retailers.

Another positive indication came from Swagbucks, which showed that gross merchandise volume is up 25 percent year-over-year. Swagbucks works with 1,500 retailers including Amazon, Walmart, Target and Best Buy to provide cash back, coupons, deals and special discounts to consumers.

“We believe this will be the biggest Black Friday ever,” said David Weinrot, chief operating officer of Prodege, the parent company of Swagbucks. “We believe Black Friday could reach $9.5 billion in sales.”

On the other hand, analysts at Telsey Advisory Group visiting stores across the U.S. since 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving described traffic as “solid” but lower than last year. On Black Friday morning, store and mall traffic was said to “modest” but improving as the day progressed.

“Like last year, we are not too concerned and don’t believe too much weight should be given to the slow Black Friday traffic, given many of the promotions were available for the past couple of weeks,” the Telsey Advisory Group said, adding that in-store traffic was best at Best Buy, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Target and Walmart.

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. reported midday Friday that women’s and juniors’ sweaters, sleepwear and boots; athletic apparel; toys; luggage; towels, and fine jewelry, as well as kitchen electrics such as the Cooks fast pot and air fryer, were among strong categories and items. “The company is pleased by the early customer response to our holiday assortment,” the statement read. Penney’s has been losing sales and profits this year and urgently needs a strong holiday season.

JLL Retail, which has about 1,000 properties including Rosedale Center, Manhattan Village and Citadel Mall, took a survey of 60 properties and concluded that 59 percent of those on the East Coast experienced “moderate to strong” traffic, while nearly 41 percent saw weak traffic. About 32 percent of the properties said they were seeing greater traffic than a year ago; 23 percent have been seeing less, and about 45.5 percent have been seeing the same amount of traffic as last year.

At JLL’s West Coast properties, 86 percent said traffic appeared to be the same as last year; 14 percent said traffic was down.

“Doorbusters are always the driving force. People are looking for deals,” said Greg Maloney, ceo of JLL Retail. “Thursday and Friday shoppers are mostly value shoppers. They’re willing to get up at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m.

“The biggest surprise is that apparel seems to be leading the way because of the prices.” He added that about 75 percent of the doorbusters are in apparel, and that electronics represent about 25 percent of the doorbusters.

Many industry experts have predicted that sales will rise around 5 percent, give or take a point.

Maloney said he expects a 2 to 3 percent sales gain at a minimum. “It could be as high as 6 to 7 percent. Consumer confidence is at an 18-year high. Wages are up last month 3.1 percent. There’s more disposable income and people feel good about their jobs.”

He noted that holiday sales — the November-December period — should eclipse $1 trillion, representing a big chunk of the $4.5 trillion to $5 trillion for the whole year.

IBM projects that consumer appliances will lead all product categories, with 15.2 percent projected growth, while jewelry will be up 5.2 percent; men’s apparel will be up 12.7 percent, and women’s apparel will be up 4.3 percent.

Analysts believe promotions so far have been preplanned, inventories are in good shape and consumer demand is there. However, margins are being affected by increased labor, supply chain and delivery costs and retailers are up against good business trends that were seen during holiday 2017.

“The retail industry is extremely dynamic and a host of powerful factors such as the economy, fast-moving market trends and consumer confidence all come into play,” said Dr. Michael Haydock, vice president and chief scientist with IBM Global Business Services. “With AI (artificial intelligence) and advanced analytics, we can get the experience just right for discerning consumers when they walk into the store.”

He continued, “The interplay of machine learning augmenting human customer service is the winning combination to help the retail industry better serve the consumer. Uncovering and leveraging patterns that are not obvious make the retail experience both fun and advantageous for the consumer. It makes every experience feel like it was composed just for them.”

According to a report from Oliver Chen, managing director and senior equity research analyst covering retail and luxury goods at Cowen, “The story for this year is that healthier in-store traffic combined with outstanding digital growth will lead to strong results at many U.S. retailers. We model sales growth of plus 4 to 5 percent based on activewear product, market share capture from Toys R Us closures and better mobile integration with stores. We appreciate well planned promotions and inventories.” Chen added that he’s “most impressed with traffic at Walmart and Kohl’s.”

“Black Friday is bigger than a 24-hour shopping sprint or even a week-long marathon. It’s turned into a month-long extravaganza which started with promotions just after Halloween, and will continue well after Cyber Monday,” said Frank Layo, managing director of Kurt Salmon which is part of Accenture Strategy.

Added Jill Standish, Accenture’s senior managing director and global retail lead, “Our data highlighted a rising number of people are looking to shop for goods via social media, so retailers that have built the right social capabilities should benefit.…Discovery is still central to retail, and while e-commerce will continue to see growth this holiday, we’ve seen retailers remodel stores to lure consumers, offering some fantastic sampling experiences and interactive workshops.”

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