Retailers are running on track with holiday business so far, anticipating a good outcome even as they know there is still a long way to go.
They’ve been buoyed by temperatures dropping in November, pent-up demand for cold weather clothes and accessories, consumer wallets being in good shape, and the conveniences and deals they’ve added online and in stores that they didn’t have a year or two ago, such as free shipping or BOPIS (buy online, pickup in store).
“She’s out there shopping,” said an upbeat Jeff Gennette, Macy’s Inc. chief executive officer, who was standing on the mezzanine of Macy’s Herald Square late Friday morning, overlooking the crowd crunch below on the main floor.
He said sales and traffic levels for Thursday and Friday were ahead of last year and met expectations. Gennette also said it’s been paying off opening stores on Thanksgiving. “The combination of keeping our stores open Thursday and Friday is getting bigger each year.”
Asked what’s selling best, Gennette said, “Cold is gold. Coats, sweaters, fleece, boots — it’s all been good the last two days.” Gennette also said it’s been a “particularly good year in fragrance, both men’s and women’s.” He cited Chanel, Gucci and Tiffany, which all had fragrance introductions recently.
“Tech is also doing well, led by Apple watches,” Gennette said, adding that deals on exclusive products are selling well.
“Last night, when the malls opened around five or six o’clock, there was pretty decent traffic till around nine, but the late-night mall shopping is on the downside. It’s not nearly as hot and new and fun as it used to be, and the early-morning hours, like five or six or seven, from a specialty point of view is not nearly as important,” said one senior executive from a national specialty chain. “It starts happening more toward 11 a.m. or noon. That’s when people are really coming out.”
The source said online business is “extremely strong and taking away share from brick-and-mortar. On balance, everything is as expected. There have been no surprises. The tale of Black Friday can’t really be told until Tuesday morning after Cyber Monday. There are lots of people waiting to see deals get even stronger on Cyber Monday. It’s a huge, huge day.”
Similarly, Macy’s Gennette avoided making a prediction based on Black Friday. “I’m not going to extrapolate. The fourth quarter started out strong, but it’s a marathon, we’ve got to earn each customer dollar every single day,” he said.
“Millions of guests” visited Target stores, which opened at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, the retailer said, adding that consumers shopped across the store, snapping up doorbuster deals on big-ticket items and $10 sweaters.
Trade groups and industry analysts generally are forecasting retail sales to be up in the 3 to 4 percent range for the holiday season.
Target’s Black Friday deals broke on target.com on Thursday morning. The retailer said it added more offers for order pickup than in previous years. By early evening on Thursday, Target registered more than three times the number of order pickup transactions than the entire day on Thanksgiving last year.
Some of consumers’ favorite deals were Apple iPads and watches; gaming systems such as Xbox One and Nintendo Switch; Madden NFL video games, and Rubbermaid’s 34-piece food storage set for $7. Giant plush teddy bears were a hit, selling at a rate of 600 per minute. Bigger was better in terms of TVs,with deals on the 55-inch Westinghouse model, 50-inch Samsung, 43-inch Element and 32-inch Polaroid. Hit toys included HexBug BattleBots Arena, Hatchimals Glittering Garden Hatching Egg, Giant-Sized Jumbling Tower game and Leo, Pokémon and Nerf.
Shoppers who spent at least $50 on Friday received 20 percent off on a future holiday shopping trip. With another Black Friday under its belt, the retailer is gearing up for its Cyber Monday event, which will include a 15 percent off site-wide sale Monday morning.
But throughout retail, while sales revenues are up, discounting remains steady, raising questions about retail profitability for the fourth quarter. Markdowns, which have often been in the 40 percent range in November, will remain steep next week for Cyber Monday. Then retailers notice a post-Friday shopper fatigue and begin to experience an extended lull in traffic until about midway into December.
Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, concurred that it’s been a good start to the season. “The plus side of warm weather in September and October was that the outerwear sales got bumped into November.”
Commenting on Thursday and Friday, Johnson said the outlets and most retailers in power and strip centers were particularly strong, including Best Buy, Costco, Target and Wal-Mart as well as Express, which he said was rebounding. He noted that T.J. Maxx was not open on Thanksgiving, and that Old Navy usually does well during holiday, particularly in kids merchandise.
“We think the beginning of the season was consistent with our 4.3 percent forecast. We have seen continual acceleration week after week,” he said.
Business on Black Friday, Johnson said, “Better than the last couple of years but not like the old days when everybody was closed Thanksgiving, other than Wal-Mart. Traffic today is better than the last few years but not as good as the peak years of 2005 and 2006.”
Johnson said the industry may top 5 percent for the season, if the pace keeps up.
According to Cowen & Co. analyst Oliver Chen, “We think overall Black Friday week sales could be up 4.5 percent, based on higher conversion rates and digital sales growth of 15 to 20 percent and higher. We expect digital sales growth to include more than 50 percent mobile traffic and 20 percent mobile sales. We also believe the trend of negative store traffic continues and expect physical store traffic to be down 4 to 6 percent.”
Chen, based on his team’s channel checks, cited activewear, destructed and technical denim, logo product, sherpa hoodies and bralettes as bestsellers.
“In the malls, we saw most people with bags from Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, Forever 21 and H&M. Traffic-wise, we thought American Eagle, Pink and Gap had the longest lines at the registers. Those who seemed light on traffic included Banana Republic and Michael Kors,” Chen said, noting that there was more traffic at Macy’s than J.C. Penney, although that was likely due to “more planned promotions at Macy’s.”
Gabriella Santaniello, founder of research firm A Line Partners, said, “There was a lot of promotional activity throughout the month, so that pulled away some fervor for coming out Black Friday. “Some of the luxury brands began promoting on Tuesday to clientele about Black Friday deals, calling or texting ahead of time and telling customers to buy early.” She said sales associates at Fendi, Bottega Venetta and Prada were hustling to get sales early, some even noting that for certain items there were very limited quantities in the U.S.
“The biggest shopping day in all of retail is well under way and it’s about to get even more exciting. Traffic online and in the stores has been great,” said Steve Bratspies, chief merchandising officer of Wal-Mart U.S. “We’re confident Wal-Mart has been the first stop for millions of customers. Being in the stores on Thanksgiving and Black Friday is always a rush. It’s been easy to see what a lot of customers are coming for…smart TVs, cookware, toys and apparel. For example, at Wal-Mart, we have a Samsung 58-inch Class 4K smart TV for $598. It’s an incredible deal.”
“While millions of customers have been scoring deals on walmart.com since midnight, the action is ready to unfold in our stores.”
To make products easier to find, Wal-Mart color-coded key departments in its stores, including electronics, home, apparel and hardlines. Maps on the Wal-Mart app were updated and deals in the Black Friday circular were color-coded. The retailer even had associates wear vests in the color of the department they’re assigned to.
Wal-Mart’s Cyber Monday event starts midnight Sunday. The retailer said it’s extending some of its most highly sought-after deals and is also bringing back some Black Friday offers that were popular. Offers include quarter-carat diamond and white gold stud earrings, “$79.99; Faded Glory women’s puffer jackets starting at $14.96, and men’s denim, starting at $8.
Closed on Thanksgiving was the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based CBL Properties, which has a portfolio of 70 malls and more than 40 strip centers in mostly secondary markets around the country, such as the Fayette Mall in Lexington, Ky., and Hamilton Place in Chattanooga.
“There’s a lot of retailers not open on Thanksgiving,” observed Stephen Lebovitz, ceo of CBL, citing Dillard’s and T.J. Maxx. “Most of them feel the same business gets done over the weekend, whether it’s three full days or three and half days. It just spreads the business out more. Our employees really appreciate getting the day off to be with their families and staying closed Thanksgiving allows for a more energetic Black Friday.”
CBL centers opened its doors at 6 a.m. Friday. “Some people were lining up as early as 3 a.m. to be first on line. The first 150 or 250 shoppers waiting would get a gift card or some other prize.” Lebovitz said many retailers were anecdotally reporting into his company that business was up on Friday, at around 1 p.m., including some in the 10 percent range. “It’s just one day, but there is a lot of tailwind,” Lebovitz said. “The economy is strong, unemployment is low and consumer confidence is high.”
EBay said Thanksgiving Day was a busy one and becoming an increasingly important shopping day, especially as mobile shopping now makes up 53 percent of all online purchases. Ebay said its busiest time for mobile shopping on Thanksgiving was between 9 and 10 p.m. EST.
So far at eBay, gaming consoles are selling quickly, with an Xbox One S selling every two seconds. Voice assistants are also popular, with a Google Homini selling every five seconds. In apparel, functional items are selling well. A $23 men’s Alpine Swiss light down jacket was selling every 15 seconds; a pair of black Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses sold every minute and eventually sold out, and white Adidas Superstar shoes for kids were selling every 30 seconds.
Lila Snyder, executive vice president, global e-commerce, Pitney Bowes, said cross-border sales started to ramp up as early as Tuesday, but like other executives said it was still too early to forecast the season with any real certainty. “Time will tell whether it [positive trends] will stretch beyond Cyber Monday.” She said consumers from different countries, particularly Canada, Mexico, Australia and Japan, are hungry for American brands. “We see more and more consumers are looking to retailers in other markets for their shopping.”
“There is traffic, but it’s less traffic, smaller crowds. Some of that is obviously due to the shift online,” said David Bassuk, global coleader of the retail practice, AlixPartners LLP, discussing Gray Thursday and Black Friday this year. “Stores haven’t been creating all of the buzz around lining up outside the store,” at very early hours. “There’s less of a stampede. Stores are more organized.” For many Americans, “It’s still fun to get out there and it’s a family excursion, but when you are in the stores, and price compare to what’s online, it wasn’t that compelling to be in the store.That said, we are still predicting a positive holiday season.”
Black Friday in itself is no longer a bellwether for the season, Bassuk added. “All the way from Thursday through Cyber Monday is more of the story.”
Bassuk said most big-box retailers and department stores were open Thursday. “They set the trend and drive traffic to the shopping centers and malls. The challenge is retailers need to stick together. If two-thirds are open Thursday, the other third risks losing sales.”