Despite falling gas prices, record-high stock prices and buoyant consumer confidence, Thanksgiving weekend sales in stores and online were down about 11% from last year.
Five forces combined to reduce this year's spending binge, and most will endure in the years ahead.
1. Black Friday Isn't So Special Anymore
Years ago, retailers attracted shoppers to malls the day after Thanksgiving by offering limited-supply door-openers: one-day deep discounts. These days more stores open on Thanksgiving Day, offer equally good deals on the days before and after Black Friday and keep cutting prices to clear out inventory before Christmas rather than hold back for January sales.
Black Friday simply isn't special anymore, unless a shopper is scooping up that deeply discounted home theater that may sell out. It may be a great day to get out and have fun with friends, but Black Friday is often not the best day to get the best deal.
2. The Middle Class Has Less Money to Spend
For most folks, income has not kept up with inflation.
Since 2007, median family income is down more than $4,000, and the biggest price increases have been for items most folks deem necessities: food and rent, health care, and Internet and cellular phone service.
To accommodate, middle-class families are spending less on apparel, furniture and appliances, and meals in restaurants.
Americans may still be purchasing items for everyone on their holiday list but are forced by limited budgets to buy less expensive items, unless they borrow.
3. Americans Are More Cautious About Debt
Americans once viewed what they could afford by the money in their pockets and bank accounts, but after World War II that increasingly changed to include what they could borrow on credit cards and with second mortgages.
Hardships in the wake of the financial crisis have changed habits. Americans still borrow for cars and college but are more reluctant to buy other items on time payments.
For retailers, Black Friday was all about getting folks into the stores with hot door-openers and then inspiring impulse purchasing, but the new caution about credit cards puts a real damper on that strategy.
4. Lower Gas Prices
Gas prices have fallen, freeing up lots of income, one would think, for Black Friday binges. However, many Americans took the extra cash to the new car showroom, where sales of larger vehicles such as the GM (GM) Sierra and Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) Ram surged.
New-car buyers will be putting the savings from lower gas prices into car payments, and to some extent, back into their gas tanks by shifting to less fuel efficient vehicles.
5. Cultural Change
I grew up in New York near some of the nation's busiest shopping malls. For my dad and uncles, Thanksgiving was football from morning to night. Black Friday was for my mother and aunts.
These days women are more career-oriented, and although they still like to shop (and so do the men for electronic toys we didn't have in the 1960s), it is simply less the iconic holiday it once was.
Black Friday and Cyber Monday are now about getting good deals, and retailers have increasingly made the days around Thanksgiving less attractive by the even better deals yet to come. Americans -- living on more constrained budgets and scarred by the financial crisis -- are more inclined to wait until the days just before Christmas.
Just as baseball once reigned supreme, only to be replaced by college basketball and pro football, a new sensibility is reducing Black Friday weekend to the status of only a major holiday, not the day of days in America's consumer culture.
At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stock mentioned.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.