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 trolled websites looking for deals.

Online sales on Thanksgiving Day were up 20% from a year ago and reached $2.1 billion as of 5 p.m. ET, according to

Adobe

Analytics, which tracks activity on thousands of websites. About 46% of those purchases were made on mobile devices, up from 34% a year ago, Adobe said.

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. A relaxed atmosphere gave way to 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. On Thursday, some stores were visibly without a tenant, sitting empty and dark. While

J.C. Penney Co.

opened its doors as early as 2 p.m., other stores, such as Dillard’s and H&M, weren’t open as Black Friday festivities began.

“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 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.

Some shoppers are glad Black Friday shopping has become more spread out. “Deals during and after Thanksgiving balances the crowd,” Jerry Phillips, a 28-year-old bartender in San Antonio who visited Rolling Oaks on Thanksgiving night. “There are not really lines anymore.”

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 Black Friday will reach $7.5 billion but be eclipsed by Cyber Monday, when it forecasts sales 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.

Shoppers crowded the aisles at Bass Pro Shops in Foxboro, Mass., on Friday, hunting for bargains.


Photo:

Mark Stockwell/Associated Press

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.

There are some worrying signs. While retail sales grew modestly in October, categories 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.

Shoppers waiting for the Black Friday opening of an At Home store in Frisco, Texas, on Friday.


Photo:

LM Otero/Associated Press

—Sebastian Herrera and Charity L. Scott contributed to this article.

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

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