Black Friday 2011 Sales Hit Record Levels, Bode Well for Retail's Holiday Shopping Season

Black Friday shoppers cross 34th Street outside Macy's in Herald Square in New York
Shoppers cross 34th Street outside Macy's in Herald Square in New York during Black Friday 2011. Black Friday, the day after the U.S. Thanksgivign holiday, is the bigest shopping day of the year. REUTERS

The first report of Black Friday 2011 sales has been released, with record numbers suggesting good news for retailers heading into the holiday shopping season.

Both sales and foot traffic reached record levels on this year's Black Friday, according to ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based online provider of retail and business intelligence.

Shoppers spent a record $11.4 billion across the country, according to ShopperTrak's report. That number represents a 6.6 percent increase from Black Friday 2010. Expectedly, retail foot traffic also grew a significant 5.1 percent.

I think it's exceptional news for retailers, ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin said in a phone interview with IBTimes late Saturday afternoon. We've seen some positive numbers as we've rolled through the balance of this year. But when we see 6.6 percent, that's a pretty substantial number. We haven't seen a number that big since 2008.

I think it's going to be a good indicator for the potential holiday season.

The growth marked the biggest gains for retailers since 2007. Online Black Friday sales also jumped 24.3 percent, according to data from IBM's Coremetrics, with online sales at department stores skyrocketing 59 percent.

ShopperTrak collects data from 25,000 outlets across the United States. Coremetrics measures sales at 500 online retailers.

The record numbers and increased turnout came as many retailers opened and started their Black Friday sales at midnight and even earlier, including Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, Macy's, Kohl's, Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic.

And some retailers, most notably Wal-Mart, reintroduced the option of layaway for consumers during the holiday season. 

Martin said a combination of these factors drew more shoppers to the stores on Black Friday compared with last year's Black Friday. ShopperTrak did not measure any sales before midnight. But Martin said the extra hours of operation for many prominent retailers could only contribute to the record numbers, though foot traffic indicated that shoppers were willing to shop regardless of time.

And he's also a believer in the theory that pent-up customer demand was finally released on Black Friday.

Consumers have endured enough bad news with housing markets and jobless rates and the sketchy economy both here and abroad, and the holiday season is something they can participate in, Martin said. And they don't have to participate in it at a crazy level. But if everyone participates in some way, then the numbers add up pretty quickly.

Those feelings, and the consumers' participation, combined with the pent-up demand and increased, more effective marketing, seemed to lure shoppers into stores. According to Martin, everything combined to boil over into a collective shopping spree.

Consumers really came out, he said. They said, 'OK, if we can get good value for our dollars, we are willing to spend.'

The lines at stores around the country before and during Black Friday openings suggested the potential of ShopperTrak's numbers.

At a Best Buy in Danbury, Conn., a couple camped out for more than 24 hours for a deal on an HP Pavilion laptop. The couple also planned to buy three flat-screen, high-definition televisions and assorted Christmas presents, most likely in the form of cheap DVDs.

I've never done this before, said Sean S., who was at a Best Buy store with his girlfriend, Kathryne Dommermuth. I figured, you know, it's an experience. And the deals here were great.

Martin cautioned that Black Friday was just one day, and that it remained to be seen whether the strong numbers could hold heading into the rest of the holiday season.

The National Retail Federation has forecasted sales at brick-and-mortar retail stores to rise 2.8 percent this holiday season, which would mark a slower growth rate than last year's 5.2 percent. Meanwhile, according to ComScore, online sales are expected to jump 15.2 percent.

Martin said a few important dates remain in the holiday season. First is this weekend, because of the lingering event of Black Friday. Then, the last two Saturdays before Christmas. Finally, he nicknamed Dec. 23 as the ever-important Father's Day, when many fathers go out to shop for last-minute gifts.

But Martin stressed the importance of Black Friday. It is a sign, he said, that should bode well for retailers.

We know that if you don't have a good Black Friday, it's hard to have a good total season, Martin said. I think everybody should be pretty encouraged and excited about the results.

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