Trader Talk

After hype, Black Friday more 'bragging rights' than profit

A shopper purchases an LED TV in Naples, Florida.
Getty Images

If early reports are any indication, Black Friday retail sales may have been more sizzle than steak. Traffic was up, but in the days following Thanksgiving.

"Welcome to the loss leader universe of Black Friday weekend, where losses are big, profits are scarce, and bragging rights [are] the only prize from the weekend." That's what Janney Capital Markets said--and it seems like an accurate representation of what actually happened.

Sterne Agee agreed, noting that 70 percent of the 31 retail chains they surveyed were more promotional than last year.

Black Friday shopping action

Opening on Thanksgiving did not succeed in creating sales that would not have existed otherwise. Sure there was more traffic on Thanksgiving Day (up 27 percent), but that's because so many more stores were open. Traffic on Friday was up only 3.5 percent, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

Overall, holiday weekend spending was 2.9 percent below last year, according to the NRF, though online sales rose. Yes, prices were low, but apparently it was not made up for on volume.

"Most of this weekend traffic was low end, high discount, bargain related products," Janney said.

Even higher-priced items are under pressure due to relentless cost-cutting. One good example of this is television sales. Janney estimates that Wal-mart will sell 2 million TVs this year, versus 1.2 million a year ago. That's an increase of 53 percent, but because of dramatic price cuts the dollar increase in sales is only 20 percent.

Even online sales, while growing, are modest. Janney estimates online sales for the Holiday shopping period (November 1-29) is now up 3 percent versus their estimates of a 15 percent gain.

However, other reports indicate online sales may be stronger. Baird, citing IBM, said Thanksgiving and Black Friday online sales increased 19 percent to 20 percent year-over-year. However, e-commerce sales have been up 13 to 15 percent for this year.

One trend is clear: Mobile and other smart devices are becoming a more important part of the shopping experience. Baird estimated that Mobile traffic accounted for roughly 20 to 25 percent of online sales; tablets were an additional 15 percent. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are also becoming important traffic channels.

Though it's early, several analysts couldn't resist naming winners and losers based on what they saw and heard. Janney noted Wal-Mart was a relative winner in overall, and Target did "OK." Best Buy "held its own."

Sterne Agee said Limited, Vera Bradley, Michael Kors, and Gap Brand were winners, while Coach, Lucky Brand, and Fossil were losers.

Here's the worry: that there will be a big lull between now and the final weekend of Christmas. Why should they come back? They get offered big discounts on Black Friday, and then the shoppers go away until the weekend before Christmas. Unless they keep offering 60 percent off through Christmas.

I have no doubt that will happen with a few shops. I mean, 50 percent off is the new 25 percent off.


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By CNBC's Bob Pisani