Black Friday may not be what it once was, but that didn't stop bargain-hungry shoppers from rushing the big-box chains and department stores for Black Friday doorbuster deals.
Even as several in the industry predicted traffic at physical stores would end the weekend lower, shoppers around the country lined up at Target (TGT), Macy's (NYSE:M) and J.C. Penney (JCP) stores in advance of their Thursday openings.
Macy's (NYSE:M) CEO Terry Lundgren told CNBC that traffic was steady into the morning at his company's Herald Square flagship, which opened at 5 p.m. Thursday. Some 16,000 people piled into the store at that time — roughly 1,000 more people than last year, when the store opened an hour later.
Shoppers also waited outside a number of other big-box and department store chains for their Thanksgiving deals to start. That included a New Jersey Target, where a line of 600 people started building at noon — and outlasted pockets of rain — ahead of its 6 p.m. opening. At Kohl's (KSS), traffic was up on Thanksgiving, CEO Kevin Mansell told CNBC.
After dipping overnight, the crowds once again picked up on Friday. Mall operator JLL, which opened 10 of centers at or before 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, said nine of those properties reported moderate to strong traffic that day. The majority of those centers said traffic remained steady in the morning, with roughly 60 percent saying their tenants had reported traffic that was in line or up from last year.
At the South Shore Plaza mall in Braintree, Massachusetts, stores appeared busier than last year, Kate Ferrara, a partner in Deloitte's Boston office, told CNBC Friday. The department stores, in particular, appeared busy, while things were a little more sluggish at the smaller specialty shops, she said. South Shore Plaza opened at 12:01 a.m. Black Friday.
"I saw a few people that looked like they had done quite a bit of shopping," Ferrara said. "There's definitely a lot of good deals that you can see out here."
Still, double-digit online sales growth kept some shoppers at home, as retailers like Wal-Mart (WMT), Kohl's and Target offered the same deals online that they did in stores. Retailers rung up $1.93 billion in online sales on Thanksgiving — an 11.5 percent increase over last year — coming in just short of forecasts, according to Adobe Digital Insights.
The firm, which measures 80 percent of all transactions from the top 100 U.S. retailers, said online sales on Black Friday are expected to grow 11.3 percent, to $3.05 billion.
"We did call Black Friday 'Couch Friday,' just because we believe store traffic could be down as much as 3 to 4 percent," Cowen and Company analyst Oliver Chen said.
Despite that perceived slowdown, millions of shoppers filed into Wal-Mart (WMT)'s stores at 6 p.m. Thursday, snatching up televisions, cookware, drones, toys and pajamas. Victoria's Secret (LB), Foot Locker (FL) and Urban Outfitters (URBN) were also drawing large crowds, Dana Telsey, CEO of Telsey Advisory Group, told CNBC. Other standouts were Kohl's, American Eagle (AEO) and Best Buy (BBY), analysts said.
At Target, popular deals included a 50-inch 4K TV set for less than $250, and a $10 oversize teddy bear that sold out. Shoppers were also scooping up Apple watches, Nerf and Lego toys, gaming systems, hoverboards and sleepwear.
"The most encouraging trend I'm seeing is while guests were in our stores shopping for those big doorbuster items, they continued to shop multiple categories," Target CEO Brian Cornell said Thursday night.
Traffic was noticeably slower at several of the mall-based specialty shops, including Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF), Chico's (CHS) and Banana Republic (GPS), Stifel analyst Richard Jaffe said in a research note.
Part of that was due to a shift in spending to the web. At Target and Kohl's, Thanksgiving Day was the largest ever for its site. Thursday was also one of the year's top online shopping days for Wal-Mart. And at Amazon (AMZN), the company was on pace to surpass last Black Friday in terms of items ordered.
"The ones that are really making it easy for the customer and focusing on them will be the winners," Stacey Widlitz, president of SW Retail Advisors, told CNBC.
Some 137.4 million people were expected to shop over the holiday weekend, with roughly three-fourths of them planning to do so on Black Friday, according to the National Retail Federation's consumer survey. That compares with 21 percent who said they would shop on Thanksgiving Day.
"Overall, we think sales are going to be up, [and] consumers are going to spend more," said Matthew Shay, NRF CEO. He added, consumers entered the season feeling more confident. That was reflected in strong October sales numbers reported by the Commerce Department, he said.
However, some independent data showed a dip in November spending ahead of Black Friday. That includes information from The NPD Group, which found that dollar sales in the second week of November — election week — fell 8 percent over the prior year. That data was based off sales in apparel, toys, technology, athletic footwear and prestige fragrances.
Black Friday deals have been seeping into turkey time for the past several years. The trend took off en masse back in 2013, when Macy's, Best Buy and J.C. Penney joined the likes of Target and Toys R Us in opening their stores after Thanksgiving dinner.
That movement has since accelerated, with retailers inching their start times earlier each year. This season, however, many retailers stuck with their prior-year plans, signaling what Jefferies analyst Daniel Binder said could be a "ceasefire" in the "arms race" to open earlier.
Other retailers and property owners changed their tack this season, partly in hopes of bringing some excitement back to Black Friday. That includes CBL & Associates (CBL), which closed nearly all of its 89 shopping centers until 6 a.m. Black Friday . At the Mall of America, all but three of its more than 520 stores — Macy's, Sears (SHLD) and the Crayola Experience — stayed dark.
"Black Friday historically has been such a great shopping day," CBL CEO Stephen Lebovitz told CNBC last month. "It's lost its luster because we've diluted it. ... We want to bring back Black Friday and make it fun."
The industry is torn on whether Thanksgiving store hours are worth the trouble for retailers, who incur additional payroll expenses when they opt in. In CBL's case, its tenants' sales were simply being spread out, Lebovitz said.
However, analysts generally agree that for retailers who have customers that are more price-sensitive, it makes sense to stay open. That's because many shoppers choose to spend on either Thanksgiving or Black Friday — meaning if a store is closed on Thursday, they're likely to head to a competitor instead.
Regardless of where an individual retailer falls in that debate, it can be tough to gauge the success of the season during the spread-out Black Friday sales event.
"Today's really the first step in the battle," Kevin Quigg, chief strategist at ACSI Funds, told CNBC. "The war is the entirety of the holiday season."
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