US shoppers stay away from stores, spend online as Black Friday begins

Key Points
  • U.S. consumers splurged more than $2 billion online in the first hours of Thanksgiving shopping on Thursday.
  • Crowds were largely thin at retailers on the eve of Black Friday, reflecting the broader trend away from shopping at brick-and-mortar stores.
  • Companies including Walmart, Target, Costco, and Best Buy have bulked up their online presence, deliveries, and fast in-store pickups to attract customers.
The holiday shopping season is starting earlier—Here's what it means for retailers
What it means for retailers that holiday shopping season is starting earlier

Fewer people lined up outside stores as Black Friday shopping kicked off, suggesting early discounts offered by retail chains and a surge in online buying may have taken the shine off America's biggest shopping day.

Shoppers also worried that tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump on Chinese imports would make their holiday shopping more expensive, though many large retailers had not raised prices to protect margins.

Spot checks on the ground showed there were fewer shoppers this year as retail chains started offering discounts earlier than usual to make up for a shorter holiday season this year.

Jennifer Yen pulls to shopping carts full of items at Wal-Mart Supercenter in Denver, Colorado.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"There were definitely some concerns about prices due to what we see in the news about the trade war but I haven't seen the impact yet, so I am planning to spend about the same this year as I have in the past," said Jay Smith, 28, who was shopping at a Macy's in Pentagon City to buy clothes and toys for her family.

"I think there were some good deals but overall the discounts are similar to what we have seen in the past," Smith said.

While store traffic still remains an important indicator, a lot of shopping during Thanksgiving and Black Friday now happens online. Adobe Analytics, which measures transactions from 80 of the top 100 U.S. online retailers, estimates $7.5 billion in sales for Black Friday online, a growth of over 20.5% year-over-year.

Online sales on Thanksgiving Day alone jumped 17% to $4.1 billion in the United States, according to data from Salesforce. Global online revenue rose 24% to $20 billion.

Companies including Walmart, Target, Costco and Best Buy have bulked up their online presence, deliveries and fast in-store pickups to attract customers.

While Black Friday still matters, its relevance is fading as the holiday shopping season now begins the week before Halloween and stretches to Christmas Eve with retailers offering deep discounts throughout the season.

The condensed shopping season this year accelerated early promotions and spending. Retailers have six fewer days to make sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day this year.

National Retail Federation: Holiday sales to increase by about $1,000 per consumer
Retail federation: Holiday sales to increase by about $1,000 per consumer

That has pulled spending into early November more than half of consumers polled by the National Retail Federation (NRF) in the first week of this month had already begun making purchases. On average, Americans had already completed almost a quarter of their shopping, the most in the history of NRF's surveys.

"We've seen many merchants start their promotions pretty much right after the trick-or-treaters have gone to bed," said Lauren Bitar, head of retail consulting at analytics firm RetailNext.

Sales made prior to Thanksgiving and Black Friday could erode "the spike that we have seen in sales dollars historically," Bitar said.

"It's slow now because we had a big, big rush last night," Target electronics salesman Evan Houser, 22, said. Houser added the downtown Chicago store's doorbuster product — a 65-inch TV for $279.99 — had sold out about 20 minutes after opening on Thanksgiving.