The holiday shopping season traditionally has started around 6 a.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but by that hour this year, Target employees and those of other stores who braved an early morning shopping rush in Lemont—and across the country— had already seen the end of a long shift.
They were catching their breath to prepare for the next group of shoppers. The waves of crowds had gone, leaving dirt-tracked floors and managers with bloodshot eyes and rumpled shirts.
This time around, more shoppers purchased and took avantage of deals on the biggest shopping weekend of the year than ever before, according the National Retail Federation.
[ Related: Shoppers Share Their Best Black Friday Bargains ]
In mid-November, a preliminary Black Friday shopping survey conducted for the NRF by BIGresearch said that up to 152 million people planned to shop Black Friday weekend compared with the 138 million people who planned to do so last year.
This year, shoppers blew past those estimates. A record 226 million shoppers participated in Black Friday shopping over the weekend, up about 6.6 percent from last year’s 212 million. They spent about $52.4 billion in stores and websites over Black Friday weekend, “a promising sign for the economic recovery,” said NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay.
The survey, which polled 3,826 consumers, was conducted Nov. 24 to 26 by BIGresearch for the NRF.
“Black Friday weekend typically represents about 10 percent of the holiday shopping season,” said Ellen Davis, vice president of the NRF, and this year, retailers are off to a good start.
A Very Big Black Friday
Most of the weekend dollars came in Friday, according to Davis. The NRF said an estimated 86.3 million consumers shopped on that day alone, more than ever before. About 28.7 million people shopped online and at stores on Thanksgiving Day, up from 22.2 million from last year. The average shopper spent $398.62 over the weekend, up 9 percent from $365.34 last year.
At midnight on Friday at Target in Homewood, a line wrapped around the building could have implied chaos was afoot, but store employee Tishawn Ivy said all went well.
"We let people in 30 at a time," she said. "It was very organized. Lots of customers said we did a good job."
Deals starting at midnight Friday or late Thursday evening brought out a younger crowd that hadn’t regularly shopped Black Friday sales as much. About 37 percent of young adults ages 18 to 34 years old went out to shop on midnight, according to Davis.
“The appetite for these early openings is only getting stronger among holiday shoppers, and retailers did a great job providing Americans just what they wanted this weekend—the ability to shop on Black Friday without having to get out of bed before dawn,” said BIGresearch executive vice president Phil Rist. Many were able to leave the Thanksgiving dinner table or after-dinner activities and immediately go shopping.
While consumers spent more money this Black Friday weekend, Davis said they shopped in fewer destinations. Many shoppers also experienced an “exhale” of some sort, as they felt they had more job security and were able to spend more, perhaps a subtle sign the economy is starting to rebound.
Shoppers visited a variety of retailers over the weekend, including department stores, discount stores, clothing stores, drug stores, electronic stores, grocery stores and craft stores. About 48.7 percent of shoppers visited department stores, which has traditionally been a leader in Black Friday visitors. The NRF said that about 37.5 percent of consumers shopped at discount stores, followed by 30.8 percent who shopped at electronics stores.
Many were drawn by big bargains for the early birds.
Randall Davis of Markham said he went to the Best Buy in Orland Park at 5 a.m. but left because there were already people in line. His craftiness paid off as he was first in line in Tinley Park, with Roger Kwak of New Lenox arriving about an hour later at 7 a.m.
Each of them managed to buy a 42-inch Sharp LCD TV after waiting nearly 18 hours in the cold on Thanksgiving Day for the door-buster deal at Best Buy in Tinley Park. The TV went for $199, $300 off its original price.
A Smartphone Weekend
For the first time, the NRF asked shoppers how they would use their smartphones and tablets during Black Friday Weekend. The federation said that about 25.7 percent of Americans with tablets “said they did or will purchase items with their devices.” About 38 percent will or have researched products and compared prices with their tablets. Overall, the NRF said more than one half of shoppers with smartphones and tablets said they would use their tablet devices to shop for gifts.
Overall, Davis said retailers experienced a more focused shopper who “purchased in discretionary gift categories.” More than half, 51.5 percent, bought clothing and accessories.
Consumers planned to use smarter methods of payment that wouldn’t result in later interest rates. According to a preliminary survey by the NRF, about 75 percent of shoppers surveyed said they would use cash and take advantage of lay-away programs instead of purchasing on credit.
“Consumers are clearly demonstrating their desire to spend this holiday season, but are far from throwing caution to the wind when it comes to how much they will spend on gifts,” said Rist.
This holiday shopping season, retailers may have to pursue consumers even more aggressively to keep their interest.