December kicked off with upbeat news that a record number of Americans went shopping over Thanksgiving weekend, starting with Black Friday and ending on Cyber Monday.

“The numbers shattered NRF’s initial expectations by more than 30 million,” the National Retail Federation reported, adding that in-store shopping was up 17% from 2021. However, online shopping advanced “at a slower pace,” up only 2% year-over- year.

Average holiday-related spending rose about 8% over the weekend, from $301 in 2021 to $325 this year. However, the push-pull of inflation and discounting, both of which are rampant this year, complicates the overall spending picture, NRF warned.

With inflation running about 8% according to the Consumer Price Index, NRF CEO Matthew Shay cautioned against subtracting inflation from the spending numbers to conclude that inflation accounts for growth. “It’s not that simplistic,” he said in the press call.

And with retailers pulling the promotional levers extra hard this season so that prices on many goods are down relative to last year, he said, “It shows pretty clearly that there was real growth in spending this weekend, relative to a year ago,” as he doubled down on NRF’s forecast of 6% to 8% retail growth for November and December.

Different Data, Different Perspective

Challenging the NRF’s measure of retail shopping over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is actual foot tracking data analyzed by Placer.ai.

NRF’s sourced its data from self-reported surveys conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics among 3,326 adult Americans. Placer.ai leverages anonymized cell phone data for millions of U.S. consumers, and it paints an entirely different picture.

Black Friday visits to 100 top-tier U.S. indoor malls, 100 outlet malls and 100 open-air lifestyle centers in urban and suburban areas were down year-over-year, 2%, 4% and 0.5% respectively. Stacked against pre-pandemic 2019, this year’s Black Friday visits were off in double digits in all three types of malls.

The rest of the weekend didn’t make up the difference, with indoor malls down 4% from last year and 12% against 2019. Open-air lifestyle center traffic declined 5% year-over-year and 11% compared with 2019. And outlet malls did the worst, down 6% year-over-year and 13% from 2019 for the entire holiday weekend.

“While there is other Black Friday data already out there, Placer.ai takes a strict approach to its data reporting and is only releasing these numbers now to assure accuracy. In other words: Placer.ai doesn’t jump the gun,” the company stated.

Some retailers and shopping venues bucked the trend. Discount and dollar stores saw a 15% uptick in visits from three years ago, and beauty and spa retail visits rose 20%.

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At the retailer level, TJ Maxx was up 5%, Tractor Supply
TSCO
rose 14% and Ulta soared on 31% increased visits over 2019. Ross Dress for Less was flat and HomeGoods was off by only 1%, but that was all the good news out of the 30-odd retailers and segments Placer.ai reported.

And the downward weekend traffic trend holds whether comparing retail traffic in 2019 or 2021. Neither looked good.

Honing In On Traffic

Electronics store weekend visits were off 28% when compared with 2019, with both Best Buy
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and Apple
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visits down some 30%. Recreational and sporting goods retail visits were down 14%, with leader Dick’s Sporting Goods off 16%.

Department store traffic over the weekend was down 27% overall compared with 2019. Nordstrom
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and Neiman Marcus held up the best in their category, but with their weekend traffic down 23% and 24% respectively, that isn’t saying much.

As for the Big Boxes, other than Tractor Supply, all had less traffic than in 2019 with Walmart
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and Target
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down 5%, Sam’s Club -6%, Costco -10%, BJ’s -16%, Home Depot -17% and Lowe’s -21%.

One can argue that comparing NRF’s data with Placer.ai’s is comparing apples to oranges, but in this case, I prefer an orange over an apple. And if consumers’ spending follows their feet, retailers will have quite a holiday hangover come New Year’s Day. NRF did not respond to request for comment.

Beginning Of The End?

In Shay’s Thanksgiving weekend press call, he suggested that his association has a caveat if its forecast isn’t realized: consumers started holiday shopping earlier this year.

“Thanksgiving weekend, which once upon a time was the kickoff to the holiday season is now more of a midway point, or maybe the beginning of the end of the shopping season,” he said.

That is a revealing choice of phrase. I sense that this holiday season, whether it lives up to forecasts or not, will mark the end of an epic period of exuberant consumer spending and begin an extended period of slowing retail growth as consumers adjust their expectations to their economic reality.

Prince’s hit song “1999” comes to mind: “So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999.”

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