Thanksgiving weekend shoppers picked up hot toys, TVs and new Apple products, buying both online and in stores, but spent less per person because of rampant discounting that they've come to demand.
Once all the receipts are in, customers look to have spent an average of $289.19 over the four-day weekend, down nearly 3.5 percent from a year ago, based on a survey by the National Retail Federation. The pressure on prices was especially strong on products like TVs.
More than 154 million customers said they had shopped or planned to this Thanksgiving weekend, up from 151 million a year ago, according to the survey conducted Friday and Saturday by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics. And more were doing it online, as about 99.1 million went to the stores and 108.5 million shopped online.
Carmen Cunnyngham of Kansas City, Kansas, was in Denver on Sunday and decided to stop at the mall to pick up a new pair of Ugg boots for her daughter. They were discounted at Nordstrom, which is one of her favorite places to shop. She said she got a bit of a late start this year because of the presidential election, so she's been looking online for deals and jumping when she sees them.
"I'm trying to make sure I get the wish lists in and look at those and shop and do what I can before Christmas gets here," she said.
The drop in spending underscores how even with an improving economy, many shoppers are still focused on habit developed during the Great Recession. They're fixated on deals and more readily using technology to find them whenever they want to buy. More than a third of customers surveyed by the NRF said that all of their purchases were on sale, up 11 percent from a year ago.
The Thanksgiving weekend kicks off the holiday shopping season but stores have increasingly started their sales earlier. Stores had been wary about being left with a lot of inventory they would have to discount to get off the shelves, and so started the season with less on hand. That will help preserve profit margins, but they've still planned aggressive promotions to grab shoppers.
"People are much more deliberate about the purchases they make," NRF CEO Matthew Shay said Sunday. "In a perfect world, everyone would sell at full price, but as consumers and as buyers all of us would like to get a deal on things we buy. The era of promotional sales is with us to stay."
Even though shoppers are spending less per person, more shoppers could still translate into more spending. MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, which tracks spending on all kinds of payments, estimated that spending over the four-day weekend will be up 3.8 percent, with online sales up by double-digit percentages and in-store sales up in the single digits. But MasterCard Advisors' Sarah Quinlan also cited a slight decline in the average sale because of promotions.
Stores trying to snag customers first and compete with Amazon are shifting to a steady stream of online discounts and alerts instead of focusing on doorbuster sales on a few products. That meant that online shopping stole thunder away from sales at stores. And while areas like electronics and toys remained strong for the weekend, clothing, particularly basic sweaters, were still a tough sell.
Shoppers are visiting fewer stores and the rate at which browsers converted into buyers was slightly lower than last year, said William Taubman, chief operating officer at Taubman Centers Inc., which operates 24 malls around the country. But he said overall customer traffic was up. After a contentious presidential election, he believes people are ready to buy.
"Resolution is a good thing," he said. "That makes people feel somewhat more comfortable." And for wealthier customers, he said, the prospects of tax cuts will help.
Janice Allsop, 66, a retired secretary who worked in the trucking industry, said she'll likely spend more this year because of the election.
"The stock markets have gone up. I'm just delighted with President Trump," said Allsop, who was shopping at Water Tower Place mall in Chicago on Saturday. "I'm not afraid (to spend more). If Hillary Clinton would have gotten in, I would have been very scared, very reluctant."
But shoppers may still be split. Joyce Hill, a 67-year-old retired auto worker from Inkster, Michigan, who was also shopping in Chicago. Hill said she will stay on the low end of her usual spending this year because she's worried that Trump will start to cut back on Social Security.
"I'll spend less because you don't know what's going to happen. I don't think he'll (Trump) support us but I don't know if he's gonna let things stay status quo," said Hill.
Even though the weekend brings many out shopping, Black Friday usually vies with the Saturday before Christmas as the busiest sales day. This year the calendar means Dec. 17 is the big contender, says Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. The NRF survey found that fewer shoppers had finished their holiday buying and more hadn't even started compared to a year ago.
"We've seen in recent years that most places will have good sales after Black Friday comes and goes, so we don't have to do everything this weekend," said William Junkin, who was at the Best Buy store in Howell, New Jersey, on Thursday night. "We'll see how it all plays out."