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US consumers spend $2bn online but store crowds thin as Black Friday dawns

US consumers spent more than $2bn online in the first hours of Thanksgiving shopping on Thursday night but crowds were largely thin at retailers on the eve of Black Friday, reflecting the broader trend away from shopping at brick-and-mortar stores.

Early discounts offered by chains seeking to extend a shorter holiday season saw a dip in numbers lining up at stores, according to consultants and analysts.

“We’ve seen many merchants start their promotions pretty much right after the trick-or-treaters have gone to bed,” said Lauren Bitar, head of retail consulting at analytics firm RetailNext.

Sales made prior to Thanksgiving and Black Friday could erode “the spike that we have seen in sales dollars historically”, Bitar added.

The day after Thanksgiving has been America’s biggest shopping day and this year more than 165 million people are expected to take part, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

But Black Friday’s relevance is fading as the holiday shopping season begins the week before Halloween and stretches to Christmas Eve with deep discounts on offer.

The condensed season accelerates early promotions and spending. Retailers have six fewer days to make sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day this year.

That has pulled spending into early November – more than half of consumers polled by the NRF in the first week of this month had begun making purchases. On average, Americans had completed almost a quarter of their shopping, the most in the history of NRF surveys.

Store openings on Thanksgiving evening have also reduced store crowds lining up for doorbuster deals at the crack of dawn on Friday.

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A lot of shopping during Thanksgiving and Black Friday now happens online. Adobe Analytics, which measures transactions from 80 of the top 100 US online retailers, estimates $7.5bn in sales for Black Friday online, a growth of over 20.5% year-over-year.

As of 5pm ET on Thanksgiving Day, shoppers had spent $2.1bn online, up 20.2% on a year ago.

Companies including Walmart, Target, Costco and Best Buy have bulked up their online presence, deliveries and fast in-store pickups to attract customers.

Specialty apparel retailers Gap, Victoria’s Secret-owner L Brands and department stores Macy’s and Kohl’s have slumped as they struggle to lure shoppers to malls and away from online giants like Amazon.

This year’s holiday season will not only test the resilience of such companies but will be a challenge for most as Donald Trump’s trade war with China begins to take its toll.

A pricing analysis conducted by retail analytics firm Profitero, which examined online prices from seven large retailers for 21,000 products, found sites including Walmart and Amazon have held prices steady for many popular holiday products despite the pressure from tariffs on Chinese imports.

The NRF had forecast US holiday retail sales in November and December to increase between 3.8% and 4.2% over 2018, for a total of $727.9bn to $730.7bn. That compares with an average annual increase of 3.7% over the past five years.


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