In all the bustle of Cyber Monday and Black Friday, did consumers forget to bring their wallets? You might wonder about that, judging by some reports tracking consumer activity on the traditional launch days of the holiday retail season.
But the lackluster early gauges aren’t necessarily accurate. And even if sales have been slow in the post-Thanksgiving days, that doesn’t forecast how the overall retail season will go.
Many economists are still predicting a season of sales gains, rooted in an improving overall job market, modest income growth for consumers, and lower gas prices.
“Folks are a little bit more confident that they don’t have to rush out and get that deal” right on Thanksgiving weekend, said, Mr. French, an NRF senior vice president, said in a Monday appearance on C-SPAN.
The industry federation has predicted overall holiday sales rising about 4 percent this year, compared with 2013.
Yet polling of shoppers done for the NRF suggested that sales fell 11 percent for Thanksgiving weekend, which is typically a vital kickoff moment for holiday shopping.
Could the sales dip be a real sign of trouble?
Well, there have been some not-so-hot signals in the economy. Consumer confidence dipped a bit in a monthly report released just before Thanksgiving. And despite progress in the job market, many Americans still feel stretched thin as the face rising prices for things like food, health care, and college tuition.
Separately, retailers weren’t helped this weekend by justice-oriented protests that targeted some big malls in the wake of a controversial grand jury decision not to indict a Ferguson, Mo., police officer in the shooting death of a black teen.
But the reality may be that the NRF survey is both inaccurate and misleading.
A ShopperTrak survey, based on data from retailers, for example, finds a 0.5 percent drop in sales compared with last year. The numbers so far are just for Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, not for the full weekend.
And even if Thanksgiving weekend shopping was slower than retailers hoped for, it may not signal much about holiday season trends.
French noted that some retailers start promotions ahead of Thanksgiving, and that consumers may feel comfortable pacing their shopping over the next several weeks rather than scrambling for early deals.
Also, online sales keep growing as a share of the overall retail market.
“Approximately $1 out of every $7 in holiday retail sales this year is likely to be sourced from online shopping,” US economist Chris Christopher of IHS Global Insight wrote last week in a forecast.
That would bring online sales to a new high at about 14 percent of holiday sales.
Wrapping store-based and online sales together, holiday retail sales will rise 4.2 percent from last year, IHS Global Insight predicts. That would be a better pace than the roughly 3 percent rises seen in 2013 and 2012.
The actual number could end up above or below that forecast, but several trends make economists optimistic.
Since last year, the job market has firmed up, with the official unemployment rate falling below 6 percent of the labor force. Falling gasoline prices free up some money for consumers to spend on other things. And despite the recent dip, consumer confidence has made significant gains.