Thanksgiving doorbuster sales: Not such a big deal any more?

Retailers have realized that pitting shoppers against each other is not a winning strategy, especially with online sales making it easier for people to get deals without leaving their living room.

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By Martha C. White

Thanksgiving left Americans feeling generous — towards retailers and towards themselves. Shoppers trooped out to the malls and big-box stores on Thursday evening and early Friday, even as early deals and online sales muted the doorbuster-seeking frenzies that characterized Black Friday for so many years.

Most analysts predicted that the weekend would meet or beat last year’s superlative sales on the strength of TVs, gaming consoles, home goods and a lot of self-gifting.

“Traffic was pretty good yesterday,” said Joe Feldman, senior managing director at Telsey Advisory Group, saying that shoppers seemed intent on purchasing rather than just browsing. “The people who made the effort to go to stores yesterday were buying… Almost everybody that I saw in the stores was walking out with something,” he said.

“What’s interesting is the shoppers are very young. It’s millennials and Gen Z who are out in droves,” said Bill Park, a partner at Deloitte & Touche LP.

Although there were plenty of people around the country who waited outside for doors to open, experts say retailers seem to have realized that pitting shoppers against each other is not a winning strategy, especially with e-commerce and early online promotions making it easier for people to get deals without leaving their living room.

“Yesterday was a huge day,” said John Copeland, head of marketing and customer insights at Adobe, which monitors more than 55 million products online to capture a real-time look at e-commerce through its Adobe Analytics platform. As of Thursday evening, Adobe Analytics predicted $3.7 billion in online sales for the day, an increase of nearly 30 percent from Thanksgiving Day 2017.

Although people spend far more in stores than they do online, the volume of online spending continues to grow. “We expect that one dollar in six is going to be spent online this year,” Copeland said.

“It’s just not the craziness that we’ve known in the past and it has everything to do with the fact that you can shop anytime, anyplace,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group, a market research firm. “A lot of it has to do with the online piece of the puzzle. A lot of these guys have started their sales earlier [so] we’ve got a lot more opportunity to buy across many more days,” he said.

“It did seem like there were a decent amount of people out,” said R.J. Hottovy, a consumer equity strategist and senior retail and restaurant analyst at Morningstar, although he and other experts did observe that the early morning hours of Friday ushered in a lull. “I actually think it’s pretty quiet right now,” he said. “The weeklong Black Friday specials a lot of the retailers were all running were pretty successful. That might have eaten away part of the traffic,” he said.

“Retailers are starting to pull forward sales earlier and earlier, which is great from an operational perspective,” said Frank Layo, managing director at Kurt Salmon, part of Accenture Strategy. Spreading out spending over a longer period has a few distinct advantages both for brick-and-mortar and e-commerce sellers because they can better manage inventory, product availability and staffing levels in stores, and avoid shipping backlogs.

Another safety valve for retailers is the growing number of people electing to buy online but then pick it up themselves, Adobe’s Copeland said. Comparing Thanksgiving to the day before, Adobe Insights found a 91 percent increase in shoppers opting to buy online and pickup in-store.

Park noted that many of those shoppers out during the overnight and early-morning hours seemed to be buying things for themselves, rather than gifts — a good sign for retailers that need momentum to continue into December and through the end of the year.

So far, the recent falloff in the stock market doesn’t appear to have dented consumer confidence, but experts say the resilience of the American consumer is a top question retailers are facing right now. “That’s going to be the number one thing I’m going to be watching for: If we see the high-end consumer pull back on the spending,” Hottovy said.

The early sales could again have benefited retailers here to the extent that people had their lists and budgets already set, but Hottovy said 2019 might be another story if the market continues to drop.

“People might start to rethink things come the new year,” he said.