The holiday shopping season got off to a surprisingly solid start, according to data released Saturday by a research firm. But the sales boost during the post-Thanksgiving shopathon came at the expense of profits as the nation's retailers had to slash prices to attract the crowds in a season that is expected to be the weakest in decades.
Statesboro shoppers were among those looking for bargains this past Friday, but many had a different shopping "agenda" than in the past.
"It is sort of a tradition for me to come out and shop for stocking stuffer type gifts the day after Thanksgiving," said Statesboro resident Wayne Hart. "This year is a little different in that I am still shopping, but it is more for the stuff that we need. I am trying to be a little more practical."
Hart's sentiments were echoed by many at the Statesboro Mall in search of needed items, while passing on whimsy. Sylvania resident Abby Robbins said this was the first time that she had come to Statesboro to shop on the day after Thanksgiving, but a specific product motivated her to make the trip.
"I came to buy some blinds for our house," Robbins said. "We just bought our first house, and JC Penny had wood blinds for half of the normal price. It was a great deal, and I just couldn't pass it up."
Sales during the day after Thanksgiving rose 3 percent to $10.6 billion, according to preliminary figures released Saturday by ShopperTrak RCT Corp., a Chicago-based research firm that tracks sales at more than 50,000 retail outlets. Last year, shoppers spent about $10.3 billion on the day after Thanksgiving, dubbed Black Friday because it was historically the sales-packed day when retailers would become profitable for the year. But this year, many observers were expecting consumers to spend more time browsing than buying, amid contractions in consumer spending and growing fears about economic uncertainty and trouble in the global financial markets.
"Under these circumstances, it's truly amazing when you think about all the news that led into the holiday season, it certainly appears that consumers are willing to spend more than most expected," said ShopperTrak co-founder Bill Martin. "Everybody wants value for their dollar, so we saw a tremendous response to the discounts."
Statesboro shoppers Ellen Boyle and Janet Matherly said it is a tradition for them to go shopping together on Black Friday, but this year they were doing more browsing than buying.
"As a family, we are pulling back a little this year, but my friend and I are looking for great bargains just like everybody else that is out here," Boyle said. "My husband owns his own business, and it has been affected, so I am being careful with my shopping this season."
Across the country, sales in the South were up 3.4 percent from last year while they climbed 2.6 percent in the Northeast as shoppers began scouring store aisles at midnight hoping to snag the best selection on early morning specials, some as much as 70 percent off. Elsewhere, sales rose 3 percent in the Midwest and 2.7 percent in the West.
Sales were brisk at the GameStop in the Statesboro Mall on Friday confirming prior reports that the video game industry has not been affected by the downturn in the economy.
"People were lined up this morning at 5:00 a.m.," said Ken Grell, manager of the local GameStop. "Our sales have been phenomenal. I expect we will be sold out of this year's hot items by the end of the day."
While it isn't a predictor of overall holiday season sales, Black Friday is an important barometer of people's willingness to spend during the holidays. Last year, it was the biggest sales generator of the season while the Thanksgiving shopping weekend of Friday through Sunday accounted for about 10 percent of overall holiday sales.
Still, experts, who predict this year's overall holiday shopping period will be the weakest in decades thanks to an overall contraction in spending, caution that this year's sales growth may be hard to sustain. Also complicating matters is a shorter buying season - 27 days between Black Friday and Christmas - instead of 32 last year.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.