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Do Consumers Care About Black Friday?

empty parking lot

Black Friday isn’t what it used to be—but it depends who you ask.

According to preliminary numbers released Sunday by the National Retail Federation (NRF), more than 151 million people said they shopped either in stores or online over the Thanksgiving weekend. By comparison, 136 million surveyed by the NRF in mid-November said that they planned to spend.

But the headlines told a different tale, with The New York Times proclaiming “Black Friday Just a Day This Year, No Longer a Bellwether” and The Wall Street Journal stating “Black Friday Shopping—With Thinner Crowds.”

ShopperTrak said spending in stores was down 10 percent from last year on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday, with sales on the latter day amounting to an estimated $10.4 billion—down from last year’s $11.6 billion—but doesn’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

“From our data, we saw greater retail sales generated prior to the Black Friday weekend, which is a result of retailers successfully elongating the holiday season,” said Kevin Kearns, chief revenue officer for the Chicago-based research firm.

More than 103 million people told the NRF they shopped online over the Thanksgiving weekend, while nearly 102 million said they shopped in stores. Of those that made the trek to brick-and-mortar locations, 74.2 million respondents said they shopped on Black Friday, another 34.6 million said they shopped on Thanksgiving and 46.8 million shopped on Saturday.

“It is clear that the age-old holiday tradition of heading out to stores with family and friends is now equally matched in the new tradition of looking online for holiday savings opportunities,” said Matthew Shay, NRF’s president and chief executive officer.

ComScore, meanwhile, reported that desktop spending was up 10 percent on Black Friday this year, reaching $1.66 billion, and Thanksgiving registered a 9 percent gain to $1.1 billion.

“While the holiday season opened a little softer than anticipated, Thanksgiving and Black Friday both posted strong online spending totals that surpassed $1 billion on desktop computers and grew at the rate we had expected,” said Gian Fulgoni, chairman emeritus for the media measurement and analytics company, noting that it’s the second straight year that Thanksgiving has established itself as one of the more important online buying days.

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Furthermore, Adobe said online sales reached $2.72 billion on Black Friday—14 percent more than in 2014, driven by mobile devices—and grew 25 percent to $1.73 billion on Thanksgiving.

But critics like Barry Ritholtz, an asset manager and contributor to Bloomberg View, are skeptical of the numbers. In a recent column, Ritholtz said, “Consumer survey information—not actual sales data—tends to overestimate actual spending,” adding that “Forecasts based on this information will invariably be proven wrong.”

He also pointed out that the weekend before Christmas is actually the biggest shopping weekend of the holiday season, not Thanksgiving weekend.

Basically, sit tight until the Commerce Department releases its official retail sales figures in January.

“It’s all just a sales blur and as each company assesses its daily sales targets off and online, they will add or remove discounts on the fly in hopes of meeting seasonal or year-end targets,” Ken Lonyai, co-founder of ScreenPlay InterActive, said Monday in an online discussion among RetailWire’s BrainTrust panel of industry experts. “For me, the real assessment cannot come until mid-January when the holiday and post-holiday sales have ended and the immediate rush of returns has been adjusted into sales figures.”

Perhaps retail consultant Bob Phibbs said it best: “Thursday and Friday have pretty much become just another shopping day.”

Nonsense numbers or not, department store stocks slipped across the board Monday. Sears Holdings, Dillard’s, J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Nordstrom and Kohl’s all experienced a drop after reports of weak footfall over the holiday.