For weeks, retailers have encouraged shoppers not to wait for Black Friday to get the best deals. Data released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and other sources indicates that they have taken this advice to heart.
According to the NRF, total spending during the Thursday through Sunday holiday weekend slumped more than 11 percent to $50.9 billion. Average spending per person fell 6.4 percent to $380.95. These figures, however, may not necessarily bode poorly for the holiday season, according to experts.
For one, the fundamentals of the economy remain fairly solid. Unemployment hit 5.8 percent in November, its lowest level in 6 years. Gas prices, which are closely correlated with consumer confidence, are plunging. Data from GasBuddy.com shows that the average price for a gallon of unleaded was about $2.76, down 54 cents from a year earlier. Consumer confidence rose in November to its highest level in seven years, according to the closely watched Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan survey.
"I certainly don't think that there is any reason to panic, said Scott Hoyt, an economist with MoodysEconomy.com in an interview, adding the extent of the weakness of the NRF data caught him by surprise. "A lot of retailers were doing doorbusters all week as opposed to just the holiday weekend."
Of course, there's Cyber Monday, the traditional start of the online shopping season which is happening today. comScore is forecasting that desktop sales will hit $2 billion, with another $400 million coming from mobile. Spending on the industry-promoted benchmark has more than doubled between 2008 to 2013, when it hit $1.4 billion.
Worries about Black Friday were pressuring the stocks of retailers. Shares of Walmart (WMT) and Target (TGT), the largest two retailers, were down in early afternoon trading, as was department store chain Macy's (M) along with discounter TJX (TJX). Wall Street is concerned that retailers will have to offer margin-busting deals to lure in customers. Research by Sterne Agee found that promotional activity was up at more than 55 percent of the retailers that it monitored.
Spending overall is expected to increase 4.1 percent this year to $616.9 billion, according to the NRF. That's better than the average 2.9 percent gain seen over the past decade. That figure, however, includes depressed holiday sales during the recent economic slowdown.
For his part, Hoyt is expecting a "decent but not a great holiday season" thus year.
His views were echoed by Gus Faucher, a senior economist at The PNC Financial Services Group, who told CBS MoneyWatch: "I think the fundamentals are pretty good...As we get more numbers (for holiday sales), they will reflect that."
ShopperTrak, which analyzes foot traffic at brick-and-mortar stores, has found that retailers are offering deeper discounts than they did last year. The firm's data shows a 6.8 percent decline in Black Friday sales, according to company founder Bill Martin. Combined with the Thanksgiving holiday, they fell 0.5 percentage points.
"Our data suggests that sales weren't down as much as some suggested," he said in an interview, adding that his firm's data shows no correlation between the performance on Black Friday and the overall results for the holiday season when retailers earn most of their profits for the year.
"There are still seven of the largest shopping days left," Martin said. "December 20 will dethrone Black Friday as the most important shopping day after a decade."