Shoppers might not be flocking to stores on Black Friday. But they're still spending

Key Points
  • It's a sign of how the retail industry is evolving: Black Friday isn't the shopping phenomenon it once was.
  • Some analysts say stores look bare of people on Friday.
  • But more spending is moving online.
These six retailers facing make-or-break holiday shopping season
These six retailers facing make-or-break holiday shopping season

This Black Friday, fewer shoppers are flocking to the mall to snag discounted clothing and electronics. Some stores looked eerily sparse.

But that doesn't necessarily mean spending is going to be weak this holiday season.

It's simply a sign of a fundamental shift happening in the retail industry: More purchasing is moving online.

Shoppers already rang up $4.2 billion worth of purchases online on Thanksgiving Day, a 14.5% increase from last year and a record high, according to data released Friday morning by Adobe.

The National Retail Federation is calling for total holiday retail sales to grow between 3.8% and 4.2%, which would be much better than more meager growth of 2.1% in 2018. The consumer still appears to be in good shape, with low unemployment in the U.S. and rising wages.

Meantime, there's still Cyber Monday and all of December for shopping to be done, when the last-minute procrastinators will hit stores or take advantage of same-day, curbside pickup if they're ordering online in a pinch.

During the full holiday season, Adobe is expecting shoppers to spend a whopping $143.7 billion online.

Bain & Co. is expecting about 42% of online sales this holiday season will go to Amazon.

"We have seen smaller crowds lined up outside stores as Black Friday shopping kicked off, indicating that early discounts and a surge in online buying, plus the bad weather in some parts of the country, has had an impact," Jill Standish, senior managing director and head of retail at Accenture, told CNBC on Friday morning.

"One of the factors that could impact overall performance this holiday is how retailers determine shipping cutoff and surcharge budget," Standish added, speaking to how important retailers' online strategies can be this time of year.

Sales made online, however, can be more costly for retailers than those rung up at a bricks-and-mortar store. To mitigate expenses like for transportation and returns, some retailers have been promoting options that allow shoppers to buy items online and then pick them up in person. Target's CEO Brian Cornell, for example, recently told CNBC the cost of handling online orders drops 90% when shoppers utilize one of the retailer's same-day pickup options.

Adobe is estimating 61% of online shoppers will use same-day shipping, or pick up an order in person, this holiday season.

The pressure is really on since there are six fewer days between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas compared with 2018, making for the shortest possible shopping calendar.

Analysts expect there will be an even bigger surge of spending come late December because of the shortened calendar, when people realize they have almost one less week to shop. Forty-three percent of people plan to start their holiday shopping in November, while 18% will wait until December to kick it off, according to a survey from the National Retail Federation of 7,917 adults.

"The mall itself is lighter than it normally is," KeyBanc Capital markets analyst Ed Yruma said in an interview. Yruma spent Black Friday at the Mall of America. "I visit this mall every year, and this is the lightest I've ever seen it."

Target and Walmart were much busier, however, Yruma said. He said Victoria's Secret at the Mall of America was "pretty dead," while the Lululemon store there was "slammed."

Target said by Friday morning that 1 million more people had shopped its Black Friday deals using the Target mobile app compared with 2018. It said some of its best toy deals were on Pokemon products, Beyblade merchandise, Our Generation dolls and $10 giant plush teddy bears.

Kohl's said it found strength in gaming and vacuums, according to CEO Michelle Gass.

"On the kitchen and electronics side, we continue to be viewed as a destination," she told CNBC in an interview Friday morning. She added that the company sold an ample amount of apparel online on Thanksgiving Day, including workout gear and Levi's denim.

Macy's said its bestsellers so far on Black Friday were coats, cashmere, candy and fragrances.

Adobe said the hottest toys being sold online so far this holiday season include "Frozen II" merchandise, L.O.L. Surprise Dolls and Nerf, while top electronics items include the Fire TV, Apple laptops and HP laptops.

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