If the weekend surrounding Black Friday is really the important economic indicator it’s made out to be, there may be trouble coming. Total spending over the weekend dropped 11 percent from a year earlier, according to the National Retail Federation. Fewer people shopped than did last year; the decline encompassed both physical stores and websites; and those who did make purchases during the long weekend spent less money.
The shopping festivities aren’t over, of course, and Cyber Monday carries the expectation of generating more online sales than any day over the holiday weekend. Accordingly, other consumer trackers have reached a more optimistic conclusion about e-commerce: ComScore (SCOR) said online shopping on Thanksgiving grew 32 percent compared with 2013 levels, while Black Friday brought a 26 percent jump. No matter what happens in the final counting, though, there’s reason to question the mystical importance of this weekend.
This is the second consecutive year that Thanksgiving weekend retail sales have dropped, according to the NRF. Last year wasn’t a disaster in the final analysis—overall holiday season sales rose 3.1 percent from a year earlier—and the weak-looking Black Friday weekend hasn’t prompted a revision of the NRF’s forecast for a 4.1 percent increase in total holiday sales this year.
In fact, NRF data call into question Thanksgiving weekend’s worthiness as a bellwether for holiday sales. The overall number has gone up even when Thanksgiving weekend sales dropped in five of the last eight years. At times the lack of correlation between the two figures has been pretty dramatic: In 2008, for example, holiday sales fell 4.4 percent after a 7 percent increase in Thanksgiving weekend sales.
What’s going on? In part, Black Friday as it’s generally presented in the media is becoming obsolete. Given the attention devoted to people camping out at Best Buy (BBY) and Walmart (WMT) on Thanksgiving night, you might think this is an activity gaining in popularity. Yet in-store sales on Thanksgiving weekend have been dropping for the better part of a decade, according to the NRF.
This has been more than replaced by online spending, which now accounts for more than 40 percent of Thanksgiving weekend shopping, up from less than 25 percent in 2006. But Black Friday succeeded because it served a specific purpose. Retailers could draw people into their stores with big discounts on a day when many people weren’t working anyway. When it comes to online shopping and its increasing share of total sales, the Friday after Thanksgiving seems pretty arbitrary.
Cyber Monday will remain the biggest online shopping day this year, according to Adobe Systems (ADBE). But there’s no real magic behind this day, either. It just happens to be the day retailers offer big discounts on their websites. Next year, however, Adobe expects Black Friday to eclipse Cyber Monday as the biggest online shopping day.
Retailers are also offering discounts earlier in November to get to people before they’re saturated, says Tamara Gaffney, an analyst with Adobe. To wit: Singles Day, a Chinese tradition where retailers cut prices for people to buy things for themselves on Nov. 11, was a big online shopping day in the U.S. for the first time this year.
The hook isn’t important—just pick a day and declare it a holiday. “It does seem consumers are willing to buy earlier if they think they’re getting the best deals,” says Gaffney. “It’s been all Black Friday since Nov. 3 or 4.”
As online shopping increases in importance, holiday purchases are likely to flatten out during the last two months of the year, says Alan Rifkin, a retail analyst at Barclays (BCS). There will be bigger days than others, but the idea that a few frenzied hours after Thanksgiving will give us a window into our country’s economic well-being has outlived its usefulness.
“People are clearly shifting the way in which they shop,” says Rifkin. “I would caution against putting significant credence in any number from one, two, or even four days.”