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Record-breaking shopper turnout marks the Black Friday weekend as consumers hunt for deals

Shoppers initiated the holiday season with a bang, with a record-breaking 200.4 million individuals hitting stores and scouring websites for gifts from Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday, according to a survey conducted by the National Retail Federation.

This turnout stands as an all-time high since the inception of tracking in-store and online traffic by the major trade group, in collaboration with Prosper Insights & Analytics, beginning in 2017. It surpassed last year’s count of 196.7 million shoppers and exceeded the NRF’s anticipated figure of approximately 182 million people over the five-day weekend.

The survey revealed a surge in online shoppers, reaching 134.2 million this year compared to 130.2 million the previous year. Conversely, in-store shopping saw a slight dip from 122.7 million individuals in 2022 to 121.4 million this year.

While the major trade group did not provide an estimate for total spending, shoppers reportedly averaged $321.41 on holiday-related purchases throughout the weekend, aligning closely with last year’s $325.44 average. This figure isn’t adjusted for inflation.

During a briefing with journalists, NRF CEO Matt Shay attributed the substantial turnout to both consumer sentiment and the appealing deals available. He also noted other contributing factors, such as favorable weather conditions. Cooler temperatures in various parts of the country during the weekend often incentivize shoppers to invest in seasonal items like jackets, sweaters, and boots.

NOVI, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 24: A shopper looks at clothes inside a store at Twelve Oaks Mall on November 24, 2023 in Novi, Michigan. The National Retail Federation projects that an estimated 182 million are planning to shop in-store and online through the five-day Thanksgiving weekend. (Photo by Emily Elconin/Getty Images)

During this period, clothes and accessories emerged as the top gifts, purchased by approximately half of the surveyed individuals, followed by toys, which nearly a third of respondents bought. Notably, personal care or beauty items made their debut in the top five most popular gifts, marking a first for this category, as per the group’s findings.

By Thanksgiving weekend, consumers indicated they were roughly halfway through their holiday shopping, as revealed by the survey conducted by NRF among 3,498 adult consumers from November 22 to 26.

An initial assessment of holiday spending showcased the robustness of online sales. On Black Friday, U.S. online sales surged to $9.8 billion, marking a 7.5% increase from the previous year, as reported by Adobe.

Cyber Monday surpassed this, with e-commerce spending in the U.S. reaching $12.4 billion, indicating a 9.6% growth year over year.

ALPHARETTA, GEORGIA - NOVEMBER 28: An Amazon worker moves a cart filled with packages at an Amazon delivery station on November 28, 2022 in Alpharetta, Georgia. Amazon is offering deep discounts on popular products for Cyber Monday, its busiest shopping day of the year. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Adobe’s data encompasses over 1 trillion visits to U.S. retail websites, tracking 100 million unique items across 18 product categories. However, it doesn’t include in-store purchases, which still account for the majority of U.S. holiday spending.

It’s premature to forecast the remainder of the peak retail season. The early surge in shopping might signify consumers’ eagerness for lucrative deals rather than a heightened willingness to spend. It could also indicate a return to the pre-pandemic trend of holiday shopping, where customers concentrated their spending around peak periods like Black Friday sales and the days leading up to Christmas.

Retailers expressed caution regarding the season in their recent earnings reports. Some companies, including Walmart, noted that discretionary spending remains subdued but has seen an uptick during promotional events.

Black Friday shoppers stand in line for a Lululemon store as retailers compete to attract shoppers and try to maintain margins on Black Friday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year, at Woodbury Common Premium Outlets in Central Valley, New York, U.S. November 24, 2023. REUTERS/Vincent Alban

The National Retail Federation (NRF) projects holiday sales in November and December to increase by 3% to 4% year over year, reaching a range between $957.3 billion and $966.6 billion. This growth rate is slower compared to the surge seen during the pandemic but aligns closely with the average sales uptick observed before Covid.

NRF’s CEO, Shay, noted that this holiday season’s sales might appear moderate or even underwhelming when compared to the spending surge witnessed during the pandemic.

“There’s undoubtedly been a slowdown and deceleration in consumer spending compared to the last 36 months,” Shay remarked, attributing it to the cessation of stimulus checks and a resurgence in spending on services.

However, Shay emphasized that while there might be moderation, it doesn’t necessarily translate to bleak sales.

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