Black Friday: A small step for bricks-and-mortar, a giant leap for online

How was Black Friday for retailers? It depends on who's counting.

ShopperTrack, which tracks store sales, reports that spending on the day after Thanksgiving was up 0.5% to $10.66 billion. The distribution of the improvement around the country was mixed, and some regions did poorly. In the West, sales rose 4.7%, but in the Northeast they were down 4.9%.

Online sales were another matter entirely, and sales were remarkably high. For its second annual Black Friday Benchmark Report, consulting firm Coremetrics followed internet sales on Black Friday through noon PST, and found "The average dollar value that consumers spent per online order rose 35.0% year over year, led by apparel retailers. " Online buyers also bought more items per order but spent less time browsing retail sites.

But do these reports say much about holiday sales for 2009?

That depends, because there are several perspectives from which to view the data:

1. Online shopping is beginning to take substantial market share from bricks-and-mortar stores. Many analysts have argued that the convenience of e-commerce and the number of people online in the U.S. would eventually lead to this trend. If so, the largest retailers are up against an issue that companies such as Blockbuster have been battling for several years: Online trumps store foot traffic.

2. It is simply too early to tell. CEOs of some retailers have commented that there may be a bounce in this year's Black Friday sales, but that unemployment and low consumer credit availability will win out in the end. The holiday season taken as a whole will be weaker than last year.

3. The sample sizes are too small. Snapshots taken a few hours after the fact are subject to inaccuracy and may need to be revised later. No research firm can track every single online sale and every single purchase at the hundreds of thousands of stores around the country.

Still, no matter what the reason, the start to the retail season appears promising, even if the numbers are from just one day.

Douglas A. McIntyre is an editor at 24/7 Wall St.

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