Done Holiday Shopping Already? Post-Black Friday Retail Lull Sets In

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Shopping fatigue may have already hit American consumers, and there are still nearly three weeks left until Christmas.

Retailers have been pushing consumers to commence holiday shopping earlier and earlier in the season, most notably with the shift to Thanksgiving rather than Black Friday as the start of the big sales weekend. Stores tend to ignore the possibility that consumers who start holiday shopping early may also be done with holiday shopping early, preferring to believe that consumers are capable of shopping for as long as the deals and promotions keep flowing. But at some point, don’t shoppers just run out of money, or the desire to keep hitting the stores to pile up goodies?

Time will tell. What we do know is that there is always a shopping lull after the frenzied Black Friday weekend. This year’s lull was substantial.

The retail research firm ShopperTrak estimates that for the week of November 25 to December 1, there was a 28.8% decline in foot traffic and a 22.4% falloff in in-store retail sales compared to the week before (Black Friday week). In a press release, ShopperTrak said that the drop is to be expected, as is a sharp pickup in sales as Christmas nears:

“The holiday season has just begun. Black Friday shopping remains an American tradition – and consumers took advantage of promotions the entire week this year. Many usually scale back their in-store visits around this time in favor of online shopping for Cyber Monday deals,” ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin said. “We expect consumers to return to stores in increasing numbers to complete their holiday shopping in the coming weeks.”

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Similarly, experts cited in a USA Today story explained that a post-Black Friday sales dip is inevitable:

“It’s mostly due to buying fatigue and the shift toward shopping earlier the week of Thanksgiving this year,” says Shaun Abraham, director of strategic initiatives for Chase Paymentech.

“I don’t think it’s an anomaly that you see this drop,” he says. “It’s just a natural flow. You’ll see this uptake happen as we get closer to next week and the Christmas holiday.”

And yet, there is no guarantee that stores will go on a sales tear during the lead-up to Christmas. The vast majority of holiday shoppers still have some shopping left to do, but there has been a rise in consumers who say they’re already done and don’t have the need to visit stores again. The USA Today story noted that, according to the American Express Spending & Saving Tracker survey, 14% of Americans reported being done with their holiday shopping as of December, up from 9% at the same time last year.

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While it’s sometimes difficult to wrap one’s brain around conflicting holiday sales data, for the most part it appears as if sales totals thus far are up slightly compared to last year. ShopperTrak reported that for the post-Black Friday week, in-store sales increased 2.3% compared to the same week in 2011.

There are concerns about flagging sales in key holiday shopping categories, namely toys and electronics. Retailers can usually expect monster sales for both around the holidays, but Forbes reported that electronics sales were off by 5.6% on Black Friday. A Fortune post noted the strong likelihood that 2012 would mark the worst year for toys sales in three decades.

Meanwhile, the rising star in retail continues to be online shopping. According to comScore, e-commerce spending for the period from November 1 to December 2 was up 14% compared to the same time period in 2011.

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But even e-retail sales are subject to ebbs and flows in consumer spending. While online purchases on Cyber Monday 2012 rose 17% compared to the Monday after Thanksgiving in 2011, e-commerce for Cyber Week overall was up just 11%. Chase Paymentech data indicates that online sales on December 1 and 2, in fact, declined around 17% compared to the same two days a year ago.

None of this means that it’s going to be a bad season for retailers. However, strong sales figures for Black Friday, Cyber Monday, or the early season period are no indication that the season as a whole will be a good one. In some ways, despite what retailers would like to believe, it looks as if consumers who hit the malls and their shopping sites on Black Friday or Cyber Monday tend to not shop as much in the days that follow. In the weeks ahead, as stores roll out new deals and promotions and Black Friday purchases become a distant memory, we’ll see whether if consumers truly are done with their shopping lists, if they’ve already blown their holiday budgets, or if they can be tempted into spending just a bit more for an extra-special holiday.