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NRF CEO: The biggest risk for retailers used to be selling online. Now it’s the opposite

Online sales strategies paid off for major retailers over Thanksgiving weekend as millions of shoppers took to the web to shop holiday deals, National Retail Federation CEO Matthew Shay told CNBC on Monday.

"What we saw … is that bricks-and-mortar retailers who made massive investments in their online strategies really had a great weekend, and that's really starting to pay off," Shay told CNBC's "Squawk on the Street."

Shay said that eight of the top 10 largest e-commerce platforms are operated by brick-and-mortar stores, a testament to the record number of internet sales that took place over the weekend.

"I think we've reached a tipping point where … once upon a time the biggest risk was to not make that leap [to selling online], and now we're at a point where the biggest risk is failing to make the leap," Shay said.

A survey conducted by the NRF showed 44 percent of consumers opting to take advantage of deals online, as opposed to 40 percent who chased bargains in stores.

And, despite record numbers of shoppers, larger discounts enabled consumers to spend less on average than they did in 2015, doling out $289 on average in contrast to last year's average of just under $300.

"If there was one word to characterize this last weekend, it would be 'promotional,'" Shay said. "You saw deals on various kinds of items that were 70 percent, 80 percent off. Those are planned, thoughtful promotions, so this isn't the kind of steep discounting you see when people are holding too much inventory."



But some analysts, like JPMorgan's Matt Boss, were concerned about the level of discounting they saw over the weekend.

"The problem is the discounting was extremely deep, and I think some of this discounting really cut into the sales gains that the retailers might've otherwise seen," Boss told CNBC's "Squawk Alley."

In addition, the start of the quarter proved to be weak, which raised concerns about how much the sales extravaganza could make up for earlier losses, Boss said Monday.

"The issue is [that] it's been a very tough start to the quarter. The weather has been unseasonable, a lot of competition, and I'm just not so sure that a strong Black Friday weekend really changes the quarter-to-date narrative," the equity research analyst said.

Recent weather trends have led to "deeper promotions" in the apparel universe, Oliver Chen, a retail analyst for Cowen, told CNBC's "Power Lunch" on Monday. He said investors should be wary of storewide promotions of 40 percent or higher, but added that he remains bullish on denim, leggings and athleisure segments.

Yet Gian Fulgoni, chairman emeritus of analytics company comScore, said that the promotional nature of the sales season simply pushed holiday sales back and extended the buying period.

"These promotions that are being run by the retailers keep occurring earlier and earlier in the season, so that tends to pull some buying forward," he told "Squawk Alley" in a separate interview on Monday.

To his point, Fulgoni cited the example of how rapidly online spending recovered in the wake of the election after a drop of several percentage points on Nov. 9.

Fulgoni said comScore's forecast of 16 to 17 percent growth for the holiday shopping season as a whole remains unchanged despite the deep discounts and shift to online spending.

As for Donald Trump's effects on the retail industry, Shay, the NRF CEO, said that some of the president-elect's policies will probably not pan out as expected.

Shay said that policies like raising taxes on imported goods would hurt consumers, especially the country's lowest earners.

"We all recognize we live in and are part of a consumer society here. Two-thirds of what goes on in this country is driven by consumption," and scaling back on that would effectively be un-American, he said.

"Open borders and free trade are really some of the things that made this country great," Shay said. "We ought to continue to promote those policies with a lot of urgency, and we shouldn't be going backwards, closing borders and making it more difficult for consumers and our economy to prosper and thrive."

—CNBC's Antonio José Vielma contributed to this report.