NEW YORK (AP) — The holiday shopping season turned out to be two seasons: the Black Friday binge and a last-minute surge.
Together, they added up to decent sales gains for retailers. And the doldrums in between showed how shoppers have learned to wait for the discounts they know will come.
“The days that the American consumer gets excited about 25 percent off are over,” said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group. “Shoppers are keeping their eye on the ball for the big sales events.”
In November, spending rose 4.1 percent. And, from Dec. 1 to Dec. 24, it rose 4.7 percent, compared with the same period last year, according to research firm ShopperTrak. A 4 percent increase is considered a healthy season.
The higher sales are good news for the economy because they show shoppers were willing to fund a holiday splurge despite high unemployment and other lingering economic woes. Consumer spending, including major items such as health care, accounts for 70 percent of the economy.
Still, plenty of people are pinched for cash in the slow economic recovery and they were seeking the best deals, which could squeeze stores' profits for the fourth quarter, said Hana Ben-Shabat, a partner in the retail practice of A.T. Kearney, a management consulting firm.
Stores have trained even shoppers who are primed to spend to look for a discount.
Heading into the season, stores were nervous that shoppers would be tight-fisted. Many officially opened the season with discounts on TVs and toys that started as early as Thanksgiving Day. Consumers came out in droves, resulting in record spending.
Then the frenzy tapered off. A mild winter and the fact that Christmas fell on a Sunday encouraged people to wait until the last minute and accentuated the peaks and valleys of spending.
Stores started to push more discounts to get shoppers to spend in the finale. In fact, retailers' promotional emails from Sunday, Dec. 18, to Thursday, Dec. 22, spiked 34 percent, compared with the same period a year ago, according to Responsys which tracks email activity from more than 100 merchants.
According to Beemer's consumer surveys, 60 percent of shoppers polled were looking for discounts of more than 50 percent to get them to buy. That's up from last year's 51 percent of shoppers polled.
In the week before Christmas, last-minute shoppers gave retailers a 4.5 percent increase in revenue over the same week last year at stores open at least a year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs Weekly Chain Store Sales Index. The index estimates sales at 24 major chain stores, including Macy's Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp.
Revenue at stores open at least a year is an important measure of a retailer's performance because it excludes stores that open or close during the year.
Total retail revenue for the week that ended Saturday reached $44 billion or 14.8 percent higher than a year earlier, ShopperTrak estimates.
For the week that ended Nov. 26, which included the traditional start of holiday shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, stores had the biggest sales surge from the week before since 1993, according to the ICSC-Goldman Sachs index.
The post-Black Friday lull was deeper than usual. The two weeks after Thanksgiving weekend showed the biggest percentage sales decline since 2000. Then, during the final two weeks before Christmas, sales surged again, by the highest rate since 2005, Niemira said.
The season “was good but uneven,” he said.
A fuller holiday spending picture will come Jan. 5, when stores, including Target Corp. and Macy's, release December sales figures. Government retail sales data will be released in mid-January.
Photo: AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Shoppers enter a Best Buy store after a midnight opening on Friday, Nov. 25, 2011, in Brentwood, Tenn. Black Friday began in earnest as stores opened their doors at midnight.