Black Friday 2009

With reports on Black Friday 2009 in, U.S. retailers can breathe a collective sigh of relief that more Americans went shopping last weekend than ever before. We shopped in numbers, and we shopped enthusiastically. 195 million of us hit the malls, downtown and suburban shopping centers, and Walmart and other large-format stores. Sales were generally up, not only in value outlets like Walmart and Target but also in high-end retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue. According to ShopperTrak, retail sales were up 0.5 percent over 2008 on Friday alone.

Good news. Right? Or is the real story not about marginal sales increases based on deep discounts, but the avoiding of the loss that many had predicted?

Big retailers enjoyed gains — or avoided loss — this year by recognizing a fundamental learning from the past year: Americans will buy if you let them do it on their own terms.

Retail locations were better prepared than ever before. Stores were better staffed, and better stocked. Key sales items, such as flat-screen TVs, phones, cameras and gaming systems, were centrally featured and in plentiful supply. And while shopping lots were full, we saw fewer signs of the chaos that marked Black Friday 2008. Retailers like Macy’s, Walmart, J.C. Penney and Toys “R” Us offered clear incentives — such as additional 20 percent savings between 5:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m — with limited exceptions and unlimited stock. Happier customers and fewer returns make the shopping situation better for everyone.

The numbers tell the story. Retail traffic was up significantly in 2009. According to the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group,
195 million shoppers visited stores and websites over the long weekend,
up from 172 million in 2008. However, on average they spend more cautiously. Average amount
spend dropped from $372.57 to $343.31, about an 8 percent drop.

In other words, Americans are buying as strongly as ever before, but more than ever we shop with savings as the primary criterion. We are better informed about money-saving offers. We have more tools as our disposal, like digital coupons and real-time mobile price comparison apps like RedLaser (left). We expect more control over the transaction than we did before.

Maybe the big story out of Black Friday 2009 has yet to be told. Is online shopping the real growth space? We’re smarter about buying online this year, and more of us have high-speed internet connections: the National Retail Federation forecast the number of people who plan to shop today, Cyber Monday 2009, to 96.5 million in 2009, a 13 percent jump over 2008.

Which leads to two questions:

For brick-and-mortar retailers, is “flat” the new “up”?

In coming years, will digital retail be the only opportunity for real retail growth?

Stay tuned.