Big Black Friday crowds hit stores for Black Friday shopping

Bargain-hungry shoppers didn’t let the rain, chill or tryptophan keep them away from doorbuster deals Thursday night. And as the main Black Friday shopping extravaganza got underway early this morning, the big-box chains and department store anchors appeared to be the early winners.

The South Shore Plaza mall, in Braintree, Massachusetts, appeared busier than last year, with traffic flowing in steadily from about 6:15 a.m. to 7:15 a.m., Kate Ferrara, a partner in Deloitte’s Boston office, told CNBC Friday.

“I saw a few people that looked like they had done quite a bit of shopping,” Ferrara said. “There’s definitely a lot of good deals that you can see out here.”

The department stores, in particular, appeared busy, while things were a little more sluggish at the smaller specialty shops, she said. South Shore Plaza opened at 12:01 a.m. Black Friday, and appeared to have avoided the overnight lull that’s typical when a center or store first opens on Thanksgiving Day, Ferrara said. Traffic on Black Friday, which is seen being the busiest day of the holiday shopping season, typically ratchets up around 6 a.m.

Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren told CNBC that traffic was steady into the morning at his company’s Herald Square flagship, which opened at 5 p.m. Thursday. Some 16,000 people piled into the store at that time — roughly 1,000 more people than last year, when the store opened an hour later.

Shoppers also waited outside a number of other big-box and department store chains for their Thanksgiving deals to start. At a New Jersey Target, a line of 600 people started building at noon — and outlasted pockets of rain — ahead of its 6 p.m. opening. Deal seekers also lined up outside wet J.C. Penney and Best Buy stores across the Northeast, waiting for their 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. openings.

Mall operator JLL, which opened 10 of centers at or before 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, said nine of those properties reported moderate to strong traffic, with retailers there saying it was the same or up from last year.

And once shoppers got inside, they were ready to spend.

“The most encouraging trend I’m seeing is while guests were in our stores shopping for those big doorbuster items, they continued to shop multiple categories,” Target CEO Brian Cornell said Thursday night.

Popular deals included a 50-inch 4K TV set for less than $250, and a $10 oversize teddy bear that sold out. Shoppers were also scooping upApple watches, Nerf and Lego toys, gaming systems, hoverboards and sleepwear.

“Our guests still enjoy shopping on Thanksgiving evening,” Cornell said.

Hundreds of guests shopped for Black Friday doorbuster deals at Target at the Black Friday At Target Dadeland South In Miami at Target Dadeland South on November 27, 2014 in Miami, Florida.

Gustavo Caballero | Getty Images for Target
Hundreds of guests shopped for Black Friday doorbuster deals at Target at the Black Friday At Target Dadeland South In Miami at Target Dadeland South on November 27, 2014 in Miami, Florida.

Millions of shoppers also filed into Wal-Mart‘s stores at 6 p.m., snatching up televisions, cookware, drones, toys and pajamas.Victoria’s Secret, Foot Locker and Urban Outfitters were also drawing large crowds, Dana Telsey, CEO of Telsey Advisory Group, told CNBC.

Several retailers, including Wal-Mart, Kohl’s and Target, offered the same deals online that they did in stores. As of 5 p.m. Thursday, Adobe said retailers had rung up $1.15 billion in online sales, a 13.6 percent increase over last year.

At Target, both revenue and traffic were up double-digits as of 8:30 p.m., and the big-box retailer said Friday morning that the day ended up being its largest ever for Target.com. Thanksgiving was also one of the year’s top online shopping days for Wal-Mart. And at Amazon, mobile orders on Thanksgiving exceeded last year’s holiday Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday. As of about 7:30 a.m. on Black Friday, Amazon was already on pace to surpass last year in terms of items ordered.

“The ones that are really making it easy for the customer and focusing on them will be the winners,” Stacey Widlitz, president of SW Retail Advisors, told CNBC.

As is typical, much of the foot traffic slowed overnight. But Matthew Shay, CEO of the National Retail Federation, said Black Friday would be the “biggest day of the weekend.” Some 137.4 million people were expected to shop over the holiday weekend, with roughly three-fourths of them planning to do so on Black Friday, according to the NRF’s consumer survey. That compares with 21 percent who said they would shop on Thanksgiving Day.

“Overall, we think sales are going to be up, [and] consumers are going to spend more,” Shay said, adding consumers entered the season feeling more confident. That was reflected in strong October sales numbers reported by the Commerce Department, he said.

However, some independent data showed a dip in November spending ahead of Black Friday. That includes information from The NPD Group, which found that dollar sales in the second week of November — election week — fell 8 percent over the prior year. That data was based off sales in apparel, toys, technology, athletic footwear and prestige fragrances.

Black Friday deals have been seeping into turkey time for the past several years. The trend took off en masse back in 2013, when Macy’s, Best Buy and J.C. Penney joined the likes of Target and Toys R Us in opening their stores after Thanksgiving dinner.

That movement has since accelerated, with retailers inching their start times earlier each year. This season, however, many retailers stuck with their prior-year plans, signaling what Jefferies analyst Daniel Binder said could be a “ceasefire” in the “arms race” to open earlier.

Other retailers and property owners changed their tack this season, partly in hopes of bringing some excitement back to Black Friday. That includes CBL & Associates, which closed nearly all of its 89 shopping centers until 6 a.m. Black Friday. At the Mall of America, all but three of its more than 520 stores — Macy’s, Sears and the Crayola Experience — stayed dark.

“Black Friday historically has been such a great shopping day,” CBL CEO Stephen Lebovitz told CNBC last month. “It’s lost its luster because we’ve diluted it. … We want to bring back Black Friday and make it fun.”

The industry is torn on whether Thanksgiving store hours are worth the trouble for retailers, who incur additional payroll expenses when they opt in. In CBL’s case, its tenants’ sales were simply being spread out, Lebovitz said.

However, analysts generally agree that for retailers who have customers that are more price-sensitive, it makes sense to stay open. That’s because many shoppers choose to spend on either Thanksgiving or Black Friday — meaning if a store is closed on Thursday, they’re likely to head to a competitor instead.

Further depressing store traffic on Black Friday is shoppers’ growing tendency to search for deals on the web. According to a prediction by Adobe Digital Insights, which measures 80 percent of all transactions from the top 100 U.S. retailers, online sales on Thanksgiving and Black Friday are expected to grow 15.6 percent and 11.3 percent, respectively.

Sales typically get off to a strong start when a retailer first opens its doors, then taper off as the night goes on. Traffic tends to pick up again early in the morning on Black Friday. Yet with consumers doing more shopping online, and with deals starting earlier in the season, it can be tough to gauge the success of a season during the spread-out sales event.

“Today’s really the first step in the battle,” Kevin Quigg, chief strategist at ACSI Funds, told CNBC. “The war is the entirety of the holiday season.”

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