U.S. shoppers went to stores earlier this Thanksgiving weekend and bought online more than before, giving retailers a strong start to the holiday shopping season, data showed on Sunday.
The more successful retailers, analysts said, were companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Macy's Inc, which did better at combining physical stores with their online and mobile channels into a seamless shopping experience.
"The more you can make a shopper shop multiple channels, they are at least twice as likely to be a loyal shopper and spend tons of money," Patty Edwards, chief investment officer at investment firm Trutina Financial, said.
While holiday shopping appeared to be off to a good start, analysts cautioned against reading too much into one weekend's numbers. Retailers have to sustain the initial burst through the November-December holiday season, which can account for a third of annual sales and 40 to 50 percent of profits for the year.
The impact on the U.S. economy is also sizeable as consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of all economic activity. U.S. employment has undergone a slow but steady recovery, but concerns remain about the so-called fiscal cliff that threatens to produce tax increases and automatic spending cuts in January.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted over the weekend, 59 percent of people who shopped on Friday said they had completed less than a quarter or none of their holiday-season shopping that day.
Total spending for the long weekend rose to $59.1 billion, up 12.1 percent from last year, according to a survey from the National Retail Federation. An estimated 139.4 million adults visited U.S. stores and websites from Thanksgiving through Sunday, up 6.4 percent from last year, the survey, conducted for the industry trade group by BIGinsight, said.
In the latest sign of the growing importance of Internet-based retailing, comScore Inc said "Black Friday" online sales topped $1 billion for the first time, while IBM said online sales rose 16.9 percent year-over-year on Saturday.
Amazon.com was the most-visited retail website on Black Friday - the point when retailers in the past would turn a profit for the year - and it posted the highest year-over-year visitor growth rate among the top five retailers.
Wal-Mart's website was second, followed by sites run by Best Buy Co, Target Corp and Apple Inc, comScore said.
ComScore Chairman Gian Fulgoni said "Cyber Monday" online sales may reach $1.5 billion this year. That would be up 20 percent from the corresponding day last year, though slower year-over-year growth than Thanksgiving and Black Friday.
WAL-MART "MOST IMPROVED"
"Wal-Mart gets the most-improved prize. They invested and delivered in every channel - stores (opening early), website (very competitive deals, many delivery options), and mobile (bringing it all together for customers by making it easier)," said Fiona Dias, an executive at e-commerce company ShopRunner, which is part owned by eBay Inc.
Analysts said while some of the larger retailers such as Wal-Mart saw strong traffic through the weekend, traffic appeared to ebb at some smaller specialty retailers by Saturday.
One was Abercrombie & Fitch Co, where it looked like traffic "really slowed off on Friday afternoon and Saturday", Ken Perkins, president of data-monitoring firm Retail Metrics, said.
There are two extra days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year and one more full weekend, so the opportunity for a lull between the holidays is greater.
"A big Black Friday, it's hard to read too much into that for the rest of the season," Scott Tuhy, vice president at Moody's Investors Service, said.
Retailers may have to discount more than they want sooner to help spur more shopping, which could cut into margins, Liz Ebert, retail lead at consulting firm KPMG LLP, said.
Analysts said the discounts they saw were not as big as last year, which could bode well for retailers' profit margins.
But among shoppers in the Reuters/Ipsos poll, 72 percent said the discounts were the same as or better than last year, while only 15 percent thought they were worse.
J.C. PENNEY TOO LATE?
Staying open on Thanksgiving became more widespread this year as retailers such as Target, Sears Holdings Corp and Toys R Us Inc joined in, while others including Wal-Mart and Gap Inc either extended their operating hours or had more stores doing business.
Several analysts criticized J.C. Penney Co Inc's decision not to open until Friday morning, losing shoppers to competitors like Target and Macy's that opened hours earlier.
"They blew it," Edwards said.
Traditionally, stores had waited until Black Friday, the day after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, to make their big push.
"When you see strong sales on Thursday and Friday, you know it is going to come from later in the weekend or later in the season," Steve Krenzer, chief executive of shopping comparison website PriceGrabber, said.
The National Retail Federation still expects sales in November and December to rise 4.1 percent this year, below last year's 5.6 percent increase.
Some shoppers were still out on Sunday, trying to take advantage of lingering deals.
"We're hoping to find a good deal on purses. Hopefully there will be some bargains," said 18-year-old Olivia Brandy from Pittsburgh, who was shopping with her sister and her family at Macy's in Herald Square, New York, where business remained brisk on Sunday afternoon.