Black Friday 2013: Flash in the pan or exclamation point on improving economy?

Black Friday sales numbers are giving economists new clues suggesting brighter economic prospects for a country now five years into the economic doldrums. 

Jeff Chiu/AP
A man walks under sale signs at a Target Store in Colma, Calif., Thanksgiving Day. Instead of waiting for Black Friday, which is typically the year's biggest shopping day, more than a dozen major retailers opened on Thanksgiving day this year.

Shopper frenzy, Walmart worker protests, a few fights in the electronics aisle, and a gazillion “lightning sale” rebates on Xboxes and washer-dryer combos – all in all, Black Friday 2013 seemed to get a recession-weary nation off on the right foot in the trudge toward Christmas.

But will the 140 million shoppers who were expected to show up for an extended Black Friday 2013 be a signal that America – where workers are finally starting to see earning increases outpace inflation – is ready for a stronger economic rebound than the recessionary national walkabout that has so far defined the period after the 2008 housing crash?

While Black Friday sales don’t always correlate with the final numbers for the entire Christmas shopping run-up, this year’s event is already giving economists new clues to what the Conference Board suggests are slightly brighter economic prospects for a country now five years into the economic doldrums.

At the very least, Black Friday 2013 will provide a gauge of the thickness of the American wallet, and the ability of retailers to get their piece of the $600 billion that US consumers lay on the counter each year – or 70 percent of total US economic activity.

"If the holiday season isn't a good one, it's saying something about consumers' sentiment and their willingness to spend," RBC Capital Markets analyst Howard Tubin told the Chicago Tribune. "It's the biggest purchasing catalyst of the year."

So far, online sales rose a staggering 19 percent over last year, a record, even as officials at brick-and-mortar institutions like Macy’s reported strong sales. Harder sales numbers are expected to start trickling out later on Saturday, though some early numbers suggest that the decision by many retailers to break tradition and open on Thanksgiving may have taken some steam out of the traditional Black Friday rush.

But if the prognosticators at the National Retail Federation are even close to right, spending during the entire holiday season will rise by nearly 4 percent compared to 2012.

That sounds nice, but given the disaster-wrecked 2012 Christmas season – the school massacre in Connecticut, hurricane Sandy, fiscal cliff reverberations – it may ultimately not be saying much, economist Can Erbil at Boston College told Reuters.

Nevertheless, the Conference Board on Thursday announced that the US – throwing current hiring, inventory and sales trends forward by six months – will see 2.4 percent economic growth in 2014, up from 1.6 percent this year. That’s still suggestive of what economist Joseph Minarik, the research director for the Committee for Economic Development, called a “low-level recovery” during a C-span segment on Thanksgiving Day.

Mr. Minarik’s assessment roughly correlates with grudgingly improving consumer confidence and a rise of average hourly earnings to $24.10, a 2.4 percent increase year over year that that finally outstripped 1.2 percent inflation.

Moreover, debt and bond-buying the US Fed has steadily engaged in during the recovery – the “quantitative easing” aimed at lowering interest rates – has done little but stabilize the economy, while in the process arguably making the dollar weaker and inflation noticeable to consumers.

It’s that crushing sense of inflation and the shrinking dollar that helps drive the Black Thursday frenzy, as shoppers look for killer half-off deals on Kindles and Roku boxes.

Whether that frenzy will be sustained, however, is far from certain, as even strong years – like last year, for example – the holiday sales fell short of forecasts by the time Santa actually made his rounds.

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