Retailers: Open It and They Will Come (to Shop)


Thanksgiving is traditionally a day to spend with family and friends ingesting traditional fare like turkey and stuffing. This year, it was also an experiment in whether Americans were really willing to shop on a day usually limited to culinary consumption and quiet time without commerce.

The verdict? Why yes, they were. Although there was backlash against companies like Wal-Mart (NYS: WMT) , Target (NYS: TGT) , Sears Holdings (NAS: SHLD) , and Gap (NYS: GPS) ) opening stores on Thanksgiving, it looks like plenty of people were willing to take them up on their offer to shop on Turkey Day.

The amount of spending from Thursday through Sunday increased by 13% compared to last year to $59.1 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. The Washington Post quoted the trade association's president and CEO stating that shopping "has really become an extension of the day's festivities."

Indeed, on Thursday 35 million people shopped either online or in bricks-and-mortar stores, compared to 29 million last year. Still, Black Friday remained the big shopping day, with 89 million shopping that day versus 86 million last year.

However, comScore's (NAS: SCOR) data on online shopping offered up the most interesting elements of Thanksgiving weekend commerce. For the first time ever, online sales soared past the $1 billion mark, jumping 26% on Black Friday. Obviously, some American consumers just don't enjoy the madness of Black Friday crowds, and they're letting their electronic devices do the shopping instead.

Not surprisingly, e-commerce giant (NAS: AMZN) was identified as the most visited website, and it also showed its muscle by clocking the highest growth rate in visitors of the e-tailers comScore tracks. Interestingly, Wal-Mart came in second, and beleaguered Best Buy (NYS: BBY) also came in near the top of the heap. Best Buy at least making a good stand online is crucial, given its bricks-and-mortar problems lately).

These tidings could be viewed as a win for retailers (and their investors), but not so fast. Although many retailers may have gained market share and sales volume, they also sacrificed margins through rock-bottom deals and higher costs for labor. And the Thanksgiving weekend spend-a-thon may not reflect Americans' eagerness to spend as much as their eagerness to get the cheapest prices possible on holiday gifts.

The retail environment remains cutthroat, and the rest of the holiday season will be interesting to track. Do you think Americans will continue spending, or did they simply do their shopping early? Add your thoughts and predictions about the 2012 holiday shopping season in the comments box below.

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