Bargain Hunters Turn Out for Black Friday

More shoppers turned out for the Black Friday weekend this year, but they spent less per capita and favored lower-priced items, according to a survey by the National Retail Foundation.

The survey showed that about 195 million consumers shopped stores and Web sites, up about 13% from the 172 million who ventured out last year. But the average shopper only spent about $343, a drop of 8% from $372 last year. The NRF estimates that a total $41.2 billion was spent over the weekend, compared to $41 billion last year.

The numbers sent mixed signals to the downtrodden retail industry, which hoped its door-buster sales would motivate shoppers.

"While retailers are encouraged by the number of Americans who shopped over Black Friday weekend, they know they have their work cut out for them to keep people coming back through Christmas," Tracy Mullin, NRF president and chief executive told MSN Money Central. "Shoppers can continue to expect retailers to focus on low prices and bargains through the end of December."
Economists are focusing on the weekend sales figures for clues to whether or not consumers can overcome fears about the economy and unemployment to spend more freely this year and save retailers from a disastrous repeat of 2008.

But recently, sales on Black Friday weekend, which includes the Friday, Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving, haven't been an accurate gauge for the season as a whole.

Black Friday weekend sales dropped 1% in 2008 from the prior year, but sales for the season were down 6.3%, according to figures obtained by The Wall Street Journal from MasterCard Inc.'s (NYSE: MA) SpendingPulse unit, which tracks sales in all payment forms.

Investors will get a clearer picture of retail sales for all of November when figures are announced on Thursday.

To encourage spending, retailers - who make the majority of their sales and profits during the holiday season - have been cautious with inventories and stocking up on cheaper goods.

Almost half of shoppers visited at least one department store, according to the NRF, with over 43% going to the big discounters, including Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE: WMT) and Target Corp. (NYSE: TGT).

"The appetite among consumers this year seems to trend toward the lower-price items, the items they could literally afford with the money they already have in their wallet," Ellen Davis, vice president of the Washington-based NRF, told The Wall Street Journal.

The retail group is sticking to its prediction of a 1% drop in holiday sales from last year.

Shoppers also seemed to be sticking to pre-existing plans, as discounted door-buster items were carefully culled from the aisles.

"The thing I've seen is people very much have lists and are sticking very much to buying what's on that list," Scott Tuhy, an analyst at Moody's Investor Service told Reuters.

Bargain hunters, who waited until closer to Christmas last year and were rewarded with deep discounts by retailers desperate to clear inventory, are likely to be disappointed this year, according to Laura Gurksi, a partner in retail practice at management consultancy A.T. Kearney.

"You've seen the bottom of that price because they're going to run out of them," Gurski told the Journal.

Online spending also rose over last year. ComScore Inc. reported that online shoppers rang up $595 million in sales on Friday, the strongest ever, and an 11% increase over 2008. ComScore surveys a panel of about two million Internet users globally.

Coremetrics Inc., a Web analytics company that tracks shopper behavior on the sites of more than 500 U.S. brands, said that online consumers continued to buy more on Saturday - and spend 29% more per order - compared to a year earlier.

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