Holiday promotions that debuted as early as October led to a sharp decrease in Black Friday weekend sales, as some consumers took a breather from buying, according to industry data released Sunday.
Traffic from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday fell 5.2.% to 133.7 million unique visitors, compared with 141.1 million last year, the National Retail Federation said. About 55% of this season's holiday shoppers browsed in stores or online during the long weekend, down from nearly 59% last year.
Total spending during the big shopping weekend was forecasted to drop to $50.9 billion, down from $57.4 billion last year. The average shopper will have cut consumption over the long weekend 6.4% to $380.95.
Analysts say the drop-off in sales can be partially blamed on earlier-than-ever bargains. Many retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. were touting holiday promotions weeks before Turkey Day, much of it online.
"With the Internet open 24/7, that's taken some of the luster off of Black Friday," said Charles O'Shea, an analyst at Moody's Investors Service. "It's not make or break anymore."
A separate report from ShopperTrak showed Thanksgiving and Black Friday sales dipped 0.5% to $12.3 billion compared with last year. With retailers inching their hours earlier into Thanksgiving night, store visits shot up 27.3% on Thursday but fell 5.6% on Friday.
"I thought opening on Thanksgiving was a fad that would go away, but there was strong growth on Thanksgiving Day," said ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin. "It's coming at the expense of Black Friday."
The economy probably played a role in smaller crowds during Black Friday weekend, which traditionally kicks off the holiday shopping season. But analysts said it was unclear what consumers were thinking: They could be on a better footing financially and therefore less willing to elbow through packed malls, or more nervous about their jobs and not open to splurging for the holidays.
Matthew Shay, chief executive of the National Retail Federation, said it was too early to tell which way the shopper was really leaning. But retail executives told him they were optimistic people were ready to spend more this year, he said.
"Historically people didn't feel the need to shop [for bargains] when the economy was in a better position," Shay said.
Predictions for the season overall are even more difficult this year as retailers, nervous about getting a jump-start on rivals, have stretched the gift-buying season longer.
"Every day is Black Friday and every minute is Cyber Monday," Shay said. "It's going to be a dogfight for the consumer every day, every minute."
Although crowds were thinner, many Californians who hit the malls on Thanksgiving and Black Friday said they still depended on sales to help them check off their holiday lists.
Nicole Bredeson, 31, dropped by Wal-Mart in Long Beach on Friday to pick up a toy castle for her daughter that was discounted 50% to $30. The graduate school student, who makes only $16,000 a year, said she stretches her budget by looking for bargains.
"This is the only way I can afford Christmas for my kids," Bredeson said.
Seven of the 10 biggest shopping days of the year are still coming up, including the day after Christmas, Martin of ShopperTrak said.
This year, the last Saturday before Christmas — known as Super Saturday in the retail industry — is projected to dethrone Black Friday as the No. 1 shopping day for traffic and sales, according to ShopperTrak.
"It's the time when male shoppers start the process," Martin said. "It's the right amount of days ahead of Christmas."
Many Americans will increasingly turn to online shopping for their holiday gift needs.
Online sales jumped 25% to $1.33 billion on Thanksgiving Day and 24% to $2.4 billion on Friday, according to a report by Adobe Systems Inc., a digital research firm. Online sales from Nov. 1 to 28 grew 14% to $32 billion.
For the first time, smartphones and tablets outpaced laptops and traditional computers, with mobile devices winning 52.1% of traffic on Thanksgiving, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark.
But some shoppers said they still like the hustle and bustle of buying gifts in bricks-and-mortar stores.
Alissa Sanders of Laguna Hills spent Black Friday morning scouring the deals at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. The piano teacher said she found some great bargains: a crockpot originally priced $69.99 on sale for $19.99, and a coffee maker for $29.99, down from $79.99.
"There is something about Black Friday; maybe it's the holiday spirit, but just being here … is an event," said Sanders, 56. "To be honest, there is nothing here I really need."