Alamy
By Brad Tuttle
December 30, 2014

Considering that the American economy is faring better than it has in previous years, that sales of big-ticket items like crossovers and luxury SUVs are booming, and that dramatically cheaper gas prices amount to mini-raises for most American households, it would have been reasonable to expect an especially huge holiday season for retailers. Yet the latest numbers indicate that total retail sales in November and December are up a mere 3% to 4% compared to last year. That’s decent, roughly on par with most projections, but nothing extraordinary.

While overall sales almost exactly wound up meeting the predictions of retail experts, the season still delivered its share of surprises and revelations. Here are a few things we learned about how the holiday shopping season is evolving:

Big shopping days aren’t so big anymore. Overall sales for the holiday season may have been decent, but some of the traditionally biggest shopping days seem to have lost their luster for consumers. This was most noticeable over the four-day Black Friday weekend, when foot traffic in stores and sales were reportedly down 5% and 11%, respectively, compared to 2013. What’s more, “Super Saturday,” a.k.a. the Saturday before Christmas, underwhelmed as well, with one study finding spending in brick-and-mortar stores to be essentially flat compared to last year. Another report, from the analytics firm RetailNext, estimated that foot traffic at major retailers was down 10.2% over Super Saturday weekend, while sales dropped 8.9%.

The “season” got even longer. It was early September when Kmart aired the year’s first holiday season shopping ad, and several retailers launched “Black Friday” sales the day after Halloween. Likewise, one retail expert was of the opinion that nowadays Black Friday essentially stretches throughout all of November, and Walmart began using the term “New Black Friday” for the five-day deal period from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday. In light of how promotion-heavy the entire months of November and December have become, it’s no wonder sales have fallen off on days like Black Friday and Super Saturday themselves.

“Thanksgetting” As more and more stores decided to open on Thanksgiving—and to open earlier on the holiday, often by 5 p.m. if not sooner—a backlash spread calling for a shopper boycott of retailers who can’t find it in their hearts to remain closed on what’s traditionally been a relaxing day for food and family time. Logical arguments have also been made that opening on Thanksgiving actually hurts overall sales, and some retail experts have argued that remaining closed could very well boost employee morale and boost customer sales at the same time. Nonetheless, stores were sufficiently crowded on Thanksgiving—especially with millennial shoppers—for stores to think it’s essential to kick off doorbuster deals on cheap TVs on the national holiday. So it looks like we’ll be seeing more of the term “Thanksgetting,” which is obviously a consumerist-focused tweak of “Thanksgiving,” and which now has its own entry at Urban Dictionary.

Online sales are unstoppable. Rising e-retail sales can simultaneously be celebrated as the season’s savior, as well as the force that’s to blame for smaller crowds and slumping sales in actual stores. According to comScore, desktop spending leading into Christmas was up 15% compared to 2013, and online sales surged in particular on Thanksgiving (up 32%) and Black Friday (up 26%). Shoppers took to the web on Christmas Day itself was well, with sales rising 8.2% compared to 2013.

Interestingly, while e-retail helps the bottom line in one way, online sales wreak havoc in another. Items purchased online are three times more likely to be returned than goods bought in stores, and handling all the returns is a time-consuming and costly endeavor for retailers.

Deals are ubiquitous, yet the best deal is elusive. In terms of deals and pricing, this had to be the fastest-changing holiday season ever. Blink and you could expect a new deal to pop up. Blink again and the prices of the old deals would change. The Associated Press reported it’s become common for e-retailers to use software to change prices dozens of times per day on thousands of different items. “The main goal is to undercut rivals when necessary, and raise prices when demand is high and there’s no competitive pressure,” the report explained.

As a result, even as shoppers waded into what one retail expert called the “most promotional holiday on record,” it was impossible to figure out the optimal time to buy. The average Black Friday discount was only 5%, while the shopping retail site ShopAdvisor noted that December 18 was the best day for deals in 2013, with average discounts of 17.5%. That factoid didn’t do much good for shoppers this year, because just before Christmas ShopAdvisor announced that the 2014 shopping season’s best day for deals was Monday, December 15, when discounts averaged 20%. Yet another pricing study indicated that Walmart tended to have better prices than Amazon.com for the same products, when in the past just the opposite was generally true. The Wall Street Journal also recently took note of the increased tendency of retailers to send email blasts highlighting the best deals only to customers with a history of discount purchasing. On the other hand, customers who are known to pay full price for goods never get wind of these bargains.

All of which has led to confusion, frustration, and indecision among shoppers, who have good reason to feel like stores are constantly manipulating them. And all of which should serve as reminder that consumers should take advantage of automated coupons and price-alert services that’ll get you the best price possible at the time of purchase—and that can later get you money back if the price drops.

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