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Deals grab shoppers, but too early to call victory

Over the past 24 hours, millions of shoppers around the U.S. headed to the malls, outlets and big box stores to take advantage of the best Black Friday deals.

But despite the turnout, many analysts remained cautious on the overall holiday season, as the shift to online and the extended sales calendar continued to steal traffic from the iconic Friday event.

Others sounded a note of caution about what's to come once Black Friday weekend and Cyber Monday pass, and consumers once again clamp their wallets shut in a game of chicken with retailers.

Analysts were particularly bearish on apparel retailers, as many of the most popular items over Black Friday came from the electronics, toys and housewares categories.

"We remain cautious regarding the holiday season as external headwinds and a lack of apparel newness will likely hold back apparel sales," Stifel Nicolaus analyst Richard Jaffe said.

Winners and Losers

Among his coverage universe, which includes specialty apparel chains and department stores, Jaffe said standouts included Old Navy, Kohl's and Macy's.

He added that traffic was heavy at the mall, particularly at Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, American Eagle and Victoria's Secret. It was weak at off-pricers TJX and Ross Stores, which did not offer Black Friday promotions, as well as Chico's and Gap.

For his holiday winners list, Nomura analyst Simeon Siegel steered clear of apparel stores, opting instead for such as Signet Jewelers and Michael Kors as his top picks.

Consumers also flocked to outlet stores to snatch up designer goods at even deeper discounts, with Tanger Outlets CEO Steven Tanger telling CNBC that traffic numbers at its centers have been up in the high-single digits and low-double digits since opening at 6 p.m. last night.

"It appears that customers turned out in force yesterday and today to take advantage of what they perceive to be excellent values," Jaffe said.

Lines started early

Although fewer than 20 percent of consumers told the National Retail Federation that they planned to shop on Thanksgiving Day, crowds flocked to Wal-Mart, Target, Macy's and Toys R Us locations around the U.S. to snatch up doorbuster deals, some of which started at 5 p.m.

Consumers also took advantage of retailers' online sales, with online sales growing 25 percent on Thanksgiving Day, according to Adobe.

Read MoreEarly shoppers queue up, analysts see stellar deals

"We had people lining up outside of our stores as early as 2 or 3 in the afternoon," Toys R Us U.S. President Hank Mullany told CNBC. The toy store opened the majority of its locations at 5 p.m.

A woman looks for information at Macy's Herald Square in New York during a Black Friday sale.
Getty Images
A woman looks for information at Macy's Herald Square in New York during a Black Friday sale.

Wal-Mart, which kicked off its Black Friday sales at 6 p.m. Thursday, said more than 22 million people visited its stores on Thanksgiving Day, which was comparable to the figure it announced in 2013. The world's largest retailer added that Thursday was also its second-highest online sales day ever, which was topped only by Cyber Monday last year.

At Target, the number of online orders and sales increased more than 40 percent compared to the prior year, setting a record as its biggest online sales day ever. The retailer said hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people were waiting in line before its 6 p.m. openings.

Read MoreStores shouldn't open on Thanksgiving: Ex-Toys R Us CEO

Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren said the crowd at its Herald Square location was "definitely" larger than the 15,000 who waited for its doors to open last year. He told CNBC that he stood at the front door for 20 minutes and "the line just never stopped."

Lundgren said the store saw a steady flow of traffic throughout the night, but the customer demographic shifted as the hours passed. Because its Herald Square flagship attracts a flood of tourists, Lundgren said the initial crowd was very international; around midnight, the store was filled with a younger, millennial group.

J.C. Penney CEO Mike Ullman, whose stores opened at 5 p.m. Thursday, said, "By opening a full three hours earlier than last year, and an hour before most competitors, J.C. Penney capitalized on early shopping center traffic."

Cory Scott, assistant vice president for property management at Tysons Corner Center mall in Virginia, said tenants that opened at 4 p.m. also had good lines waiting outside, and there was a second rush of traffic at midnight. Around 7 a.m. things were markedly slower, as the early birds headed home and the Friday shoppers had yet to arrive.

"The traffic is good and the number of shopping bags in all the shoppers' hands is very strong this year," Scott said.

Moody's analyst Charlie O'Shea, who visited stores in Northern New Jersey on Thursday, said the lines at Target were what really stood out to him. He arrived at a Target about 30 minutes ahead of the open, and said about 200 people were in line. At Wal-Mart, the crowd waiting to enter was comparable to prior years, but traffic was steadier.

Best Buy also had a ton of foot traffic, and the location closest to his home even had a Porta-Potty out front, O'Shea said. However, the retailer faced challenges online with sporadic website outages throughout the Thanksgiving and Black Friday periods.

RadioShack, which opened many of its stores at 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving, also looked competitive, O'Shea said, but added it's still early in the season.

Although O'Shea said retailers don't stand to gain much from opening early in the morning on Thanksgiving, those that open in the evening, close to when people are finishing their meals, will no doubt pick up traffic from competitors.

"The earlier the opening the more traffic you're going to get," he said.

Tom Compernolle, principal at Deloitte Consulting, visited Chicago's Watertower Place. He said around 8 a.m. that much of the frenzy had already died down, because Macy's opened its doors at 6 p.m. on Thursday.

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Compernolle also said it's hard to gauge sales by the size of the crowds. Last year, shoppers flocked to the stores for Black Friday sales, but the actual numbers didn't show growth.

"I think we're probably going to see the same thing now," Compernolle said. "The frenzy of Black Friday maybe has leveled."

According to the National Retail Federation, spending from Thanksgiving through Black Friday fell 2.9 percent last year.

Black Friday protests

Much of the chaos that used to be associated with Black Friday shopping has died down in recent years, partly because more shoppers are shifting to the web and mobile. According to Adobe, 29 percent of sales came from mobile devices, up from 21 percent in 2013.

Some groups used the attention paid to Black Friday as a way to raise awareness about their causes. According to The Associated Press, dozens of protesters visited Wal-Mart, Target and other stores in Missouri over the Michael Brown verdict, which was handed down earlier this week. Another group targeted Walmart stores, for the third year in a row, in an effort to raise wages and improve working conditions.

Read MoreThe 10 worst malls for Black Friday traffic

Separately, two Wal-Mart stores had to be evacuated on Friday due to bomb threats. The Cape Coral, Florida, and Bentonville, Arkansas, stores were each evacuated for about 30 minutes, before police gave them the all-clear.

"It's a very serious situation, and we take them seriously here," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said. She said the retailer also received a bomb threat on Thanksgiving last year.

Shoppers are also growing more accustomed to retailers offering deals year-round, which in some cases makes the deals less enticing. And as more stores open on Thanksgiving Day, much of the traffic and sales has been moved forward. According to ShopperTrak predictions, 2014 will mark the first year in nearly a decade that Black Friday won't be the biggest day of the season in terms of traffic and sales. That's due, in part, to the fact that more people are shopping on Thanksgiving.

More two-TV carts

O'Shea said the appeal of doorbuster sales is snatching up big-ticket items, such as electronics. This year, he said he noticed an increase in the number of two-TV carts.

In terms of best sellers, Wal-Mart said that tablets, TVs, sheets, children's apparel, and video gaming were its top five categories of the night. Walt Disney's "Frozen" Snow Glow Elsa dolls were one of the top toys. J.C. Penney also cited Disney properties as one of its biggest draws, as well as apparel and home goods.

Electronics and housewares were the best-selling categories at Target, including high demand for the Element 40-inch TV, Xbox One, and the Keurig K40 Brewer. At Toys R Us, movie properties including "Frozen," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and Lego were among the most in-demand. But Mullany said he was encouraged by the fact that consumers were shopping the entire store, and weren't just focused on specials.

"People don't shop on these days, they're out buying," O'Shea said. "Nobody would go through this just to browse."