Shoppers flooded stores early on Black Friday to take advantage of holiday promotions, but a selloff in the stock market on the day after Thanksgiving revealed some anxiety about the strength of consumer spending.
Reports from shopping malls across the country flooded newswires as crowds of bargain-hunters gathered outside stores in search of hot items, like flat-screen televisions, i-Pods and the ever-popular T.M.X. Elmo toys.
"It looks to be a more promotional year than any we've seen since 2002," says Richard Hastings, retail analyst with Bernard Hastings. "I expect wealthier shoppers to more than offset some weakness among lower-income shoppers."
Concern about spending constraints on lower-income shoppers reflects the economic headwinds posed by a slowing economy and a slump in the U.S. housing market. While such worries may take a toll on retail sales this year, there was little sign of lethargy on Friday.
The National Retail Federation said retailers kicked off Black Friday sales earlier than ever this year, with some welcoming eager shoppers as early as midnight. The
reported that the
store in West Patterson, N.J., had almost 2,000 people in line for Friday's 5 a.m. opening, many of whom had lined up starting at 8 a.m. on Thursday.
"At dawn, the parking lots were 90% full," says Hastings of his early morning visit to the Carolina Place Mall in Pineville, N.C. He says people were shopping at
Federated Department Stores'
( FD) Macy's,
, Belk and
revealed a number of last-minute Black Friday promotions, such as offering a $50 gift card for any purchase of
gaming console, the Xbox 360.
"People are buying everything today," says Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg. "We have so many customers in our stores, and they represent a pretty broad spectrum across the country, so they have a variety of interests. Of course, lots of people are looking for toys now, and certainly there's a lot of interest in electronics, but there's also home décor, apparel and DVDs."
Most analysts point to electronics as the most popular retail category for this holiday. Brisk sales of flat-screen televisions have buoyed sales results at consumer electronics chains like Best Buy and
Wal-Mart's chief rival,
, also is offering yuletide promotions on plasmas, digital cameras and other items.
Despite Friday's shopping frenzy, stocks traded lower as oil prices rose and the dollar dropped to a 19-month low. The
was down 0.1%, and retail stocks were hit even harder, with the S&P Retail Index down 0.4%.
Larry Peruzzi, senior equity trader with Boston Company Asset Management, says the trading had little to do with shopping trends.
"It's too early to tell how the shopping day is really going to shape up," says Peruzzi. "We'll have a better gauge on the success of Black Friday on Monday morning, when we have some sales reports, and then we'll see how the market reacts."
Meanwhile, the importance of Black Friday to the overall holiday season is being downplayed on Wall Street.
The rise of online shopping has given rise to so-called Cyber Mondays throughout the season, as workers return to their desks after the weekend to make transactions on the Web. The Saturday before Christmas also has become a retail event that has overshadowed Black Friday to some degree.
The Friday after Thanksgiving has long been known as Black Friday on Wall Street since many retailers have typically become profitable for the year on that day as the holiday shopping season begins in earnest.
This year, analysts are expecting decent holiday sales gains for the retail industry, although the pace is expected to slow from last year. The National Retail Federation projects a 5% gain in total holiday sales for the two-month period of November and December. Last year, the industry recorded a sales gain of 6.1%.
The International Council of Shopping Centers estimates that overall same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, will rise 3% for the period, less than last year's 3.6%.
Hastings says this year's season could enjoy a last-minute surge because Christmas falls on a Monday, giving shoppers a full weekend to finish off their lists.
"I think we're going to see some deep, last-minute discounts that weekend, and it could have some big implications for the season," says Hastings.