Black Friday Arrives Without the Mad Rush

Black Friday Arrives Without the Mad Rush

The strength of the American consumer as a driving force behind the economy was on display during the annual Black Friday ritual, as shoppers headed to malls and visited websites looking for deals.

Online sales on Thanksgiving Day were up 15% from a year ago at $4.2 billion, according to

Adobe

Analytics, which tracks activity on thousands on websites. Black Friday was on track to hit $7.4 billion in online sales, up 19%, based on Adobe’s early data.

Natalie Mendo, a 24-year-old student in Queens, N.Y., went shopping on Thanksgiving to see how the prices in her local mall stacked up against what she has seen online. “I’ll see if there’s anything really great,” she said at a crowded New York City mall. “If not, I’ll go home and do some Cyber Monday shopping.”

At Rolling Oaks Mall near San Antonio, a light stream of shoppers began appearing late Thursday night. It was a relaxed atmosphere with mostly unhurried customers, though department stores such as Macy’s were more bustling than others.

Customers have frequented the indoor mall less as outdoor shopping centers with elegant restaurants have popped up nearby.

“The mad rush isn’t here anymore,” said Reila Prose, a 40-year-old San Antonio-area resident who goes out each year during Black Friday. “The mall has dwindled. You can get everything online.”

The latest read from most retailers is that consumers continue to spend.

Walmart Inc.,

Target Corp.

,

Best Buy Co.

and

Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc.

were among the chains reporting strong demand heading into the holidays. Even retailers that have stumbled, such as

Urban Outfitters Inc.,

said the consumer remains healthy.

The American consumer “is willing to spend when offered compelling products and the value is right,”

Richard Hayne,

Urban Outfitter’s chief executive, said on a conference call earlier this month. “We expect her to spend more this holiday than in years past.”

On Black Friday in 2018, more than 80% of online shopping carts were abandoned, according to research firm Barilliance. But retailers are hoping new pay buttons will help, and investors are paying close attention.

Comparison shopping and spending are moving online, especially during the holidays, but the majority of retail purchases are still made in stores. Retailers have responded by pushing deals earlier in the season. Most stores open their doors on Thanksgiving Day, pulling sales from Black Friday itself. And retailers roll out new online promotions the following Cyber Monday.

“With so many shoppers comparing prices online, we have to be competitive,”

Michelle Gass,

CEO of Kohl’s Corp., said in an interview. Ms. Gass said the department-store chain is offering deeper discounts this year in some categories, such as items for the home, to stand out in a “very promotional environment.”

Before an 8 a.m. opening on Friday, about two dozen shoppers waited outside the entrances at International Plaza and Bay Street, a high-end mall in Tampa, Fla. Many people said they were planning to browse stores such as Nordstorm or grab coffee at

Starbucks,

and had no specific shopping plans.

“It looks like an average weekend here,” said Lou Martinez, a physician standing in line at the Starbucks inside the mall.

In the past, stores like Macy’s used to be “jam-packed when they opened, and it was hard to find a parking spot,” the 66-year-old said. “Today I had no problem finding parking.”

Black Friday has lost some of its grip on shoppers, but retailers and researchers disagree just how much of the spending has shifted. Adobe estimates that online sales for Cyber Monday will reach $9.4 billion.

NPD Group, a research firm that analyzes receipts from more than 100,000 consumers, says Black Friday was the top shopping day for both in-store and online last year. “Early deals get some attention, but many consumers will wait for the real thing to get their holiday started,” said NPD analyst Marshal Cohen.

“The dynamic is different with retailers offering promotions earlier in the season,” said

Stephen Lebovitz,

CEO of mall owner

CBL

& Associates Properties Inc. “We have to do more to get people to come out on Black Friday.”

For the last few years, CBL’s 60 malls have been giving away door-busters to lure shoppers. Soon after the Fayette Mall in Lexington, Ky., opened at 6 a.m. on Friday, it handed out 175 envelopes containing gift cards from retailers, including a certificate for an Apple Watch.

Some retailers weren’t ready for the spike in online shopping this year.

Costco Wholesale Corp.

extended its Thanksgiving Day-only online deals through Friday after the website slowed and some shoppers reported trouble checking out. “We apologize for any inconvenience,” Costco’s website said Friday morning.

Analysts and retailers are counting on the strong economy to prevent a repeat of last year, when spending got off to a strong start but slowed markedly in December over concerns of a government shutdown, a trade war and stock market turmoil.

For this year’s November-December period, the National Retail Federation expects retail sales to rise between 3.8% and 4.2% to between $727.9 billion and $730.7 billion. That is stronger than the 2.1% growth of last year, but less than the 5.2% increase in 2017. The figures exclude automobiles, gasoline and restaurants. Online sales are expected to increase by 11% to 14%, accounting for roughly 23% of overall sales.

There are some worrying signs. While retail sales grew modestly in October, categories typically bought during the holidays such as clothing, electronics and recreational goods, reported declines.

Due to a late Thanksgiving, there are six fewer shopping days until Christmas.

“Given the unusually short holiday sales season, the softness in spending was particularly disappointing,” said Lydia Boussour, an economist with Oxford Economics, a research firm.

While some economists expect consumer spending to slow next year, they say there are few signs that shoppers are overextended the way they were heading into the last recession.

Household debt as a share of income is lower today than it was in 2008, and the savings rate remains high, hovering around 8%, according to James Bohnaker, economist at research firm

IHS Markit.

That compares with August 2005, when the savings rate was 2.7%.

“Consumers are still in a pretty good place,” Mr. Bohnaker said.

Julia Stamberger carried merchandise to her car in Chicago on Friday, accompanied by her daughter Xyla.


Photo:

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

—Sebastian Herrera, Khadeeja Safdar, Charity L. Scott and Sarah Nassauer contributed to this article.

Write to Suzanne Kapner at Suzanne.Kapner@wsj.com

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