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Fact or Fiction: Is the Consumer Back?

Stacy Curtin

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The reports are in and both Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales are up — way up over 2010 estimates.

Retail sales for Thanksgiving weekend jumped 16% to a record $52.4 billion, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). And Cyber Monday online sales were up 33% to a record $1.03 billion, according to Coremetrics. (See: Black Friday Sales Break Records; Is Consumer Spending Sustainable?)

To top off those stronger-than-expected forecasts, consumer confidence for November surprised to the upside on Tuesday to levels not seen since July.

But in light of continued high unemployment and uncertainty over the U.S. and European political system, is consumer strength really as strong as it appears to be? That's the topic of debate between Yahoo! Breakout's Jeff Macke and Fusion IQ's Barry Ritholtz.

Fact or Fiction: Is the Consumer Back?

"This is an annual fiction," says Ritholtz, also the author of The Big Picture blog, of the NRF's Thanksgiving sales figures, which are based primarily off consumer surveys. "The data always comes out no where near as aggressive as the early releases are."

In a recent blog post Ritholtz wrote:

No, retail sales did not climb 16%. Surveys where people forecast their own future spending are, as we have seen repeatedly in the past, pretty much worthless.

We actually have no idea just yet as to whether, and exactly how much, sales climbed. The data simply is not in yet. The most you can accurately say is according to some foot traffic measurements, more people appeared to be in stores on Black Friday 2011 than in 2010.

Macke, on the other hand, may not take this data as "gospel" but does give a lot of credence to the fact the all the data of late has trended toward the positive direction. Not only has the data been better than expected, but it has been stronger than last year. Plus, he points to recent retail earnings from Wal-mart, Tiffany and especially Target, which also came in better than expected. (See: The Consumer: Better Than Feared, but Still Struggling)

"I think they are enthusiastic," he says of the consumer. "I take increased sales, I take nice foot traffic, [and] I see Cyber Monday rolling in huge as a sign that people actually like to shop and that they have some disposable income."

For Macke, the annual fact for the holiday shopping season is that the consumer is usually left for dead, only to surprise by just how much Americans truly do love to get out and shop.

Who is right? Tells us what you think!