Experts on retail sales are obsessed with Thanksgiving weekend _ particularly the Black Friday shopping frenzy. That's especially true this year, as analysts look to the traditional start of the holiday shopping season for clues about how strongly the economy will rebound from the worst recession since the 1930s.
Most pundits generally agree that the start of the season was just ho-hum. But if you examine the details, you'll come across all sorts of disagreement over exactly how things have gone.
Why is it so hard to judge how many shoppers turned out, and how much they spent?
Here are some questions and answers.
Q: How important is Thanksgiving weekend as a predictor of the holiday shopping season?
A: The day after Thanksgiving is the traditional start of the season, and many stores have expanded the number of early morning specials and hours to get shoppers revved up.
In recent years, Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day of the year. But it's not considered a predictor of the rest of the holiday season, since it accounts for about 10 percent of total holiday sales.
Still, pundits study the weekend's receipts to decipher shoppers' mindsets. And if stores have a weak start to the season, chances are slim that they will be able to make up for lost sales.
Q: What makes this season's kickoff particularly hard to assess?
A: One major factor is that stores have increasingly been hawking deals and offering expanded hours throughout November in hopes of getting shoppers to do their holiday buying earlier. That has likely diluted sales for the holiday weekend.
Parsing the data got even trickier as many stores blurred their Web and land-based businesses in an effort to generate more sales on Black Friday. For the first time, major merchants including J.C. Penney Co. and Sears Holdings Corp. offered early morning Black Friday specials on their Web sites at the same time as in their stores, as they aimed to compete with pure online retailers.
That helped boost online sales on Thursday and Friday, which rose 11 percent, compared with the same period a year ago, according to comScore Inc., an Internet research company.
Also, more stores, like Old Navy, were open on Thanksgiving.
"Black Friday was definitely expanded. It wasn't as concentrated," said Bill Lewis, executive vice president of Karabus Management, a retail advisory firm. He noted that heavy online buying this past weekend likely depressed store traffic.
Such heavy online buying will not be reflected in sales at stores opened at least a year _ numbers that are being reported by major retailers on Thursday. Most figures exclude online sales.
Even as analysts acknowledge those factors, they still can't get a handle on their impact on the holiday weekend's performance.
Q: What type of data has been out there in recent days? Any contradictions?
A: The National Retail Federation, the world's leading retail trade group, released data on spending and traffic late Sunday, based on an online poll of almost 5,000 shoppers, conducted by BIGresearch, a market research firm. The group extrapolated that total spending reached $41.2 billion for the Thursday-to-Sunday weekend, up 0.5 percent from a year ago; it reported 195 million people were visiting stores and Web sites, compared with 172 million a year ago. It also noted that discount stores took a back seat to department stores.
Meanwhile, research firm ShopperTrak released data that showed that customer counts actually declined 1.1 percent for the Friday through Sunday weekend, but showed that sales were up a more robust 1.6 percent compared with a year ago. ShopperTrak derives its estimates from crowd-counting sensors in more than 50,000 stores, combined with data from the retailers themselves on spending and how it relates to customer traffic.
MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse data, which released November spending figures _ including some details on Black Friday _ showed that apparel sellers struggled throughout the month. This assessment was much less optimistic than what NRF said about apparel sales.
Q: Have there been any really sharp contradictions in assessing holiday season figures in past years?
A. The biggest gaffe occurred in 2005 when the National Retail Federation estimated that spending soared 21.9 percent for the holiday weekend, compared with the previous year. That estimate, based on NRF's consumer survey conducted by BIGresearch, sharply contrasted with reports from ShopperTrak that spending was actually weaker than the previous year.
ShopperTrak's preliminary findings turned out to be accurate.
Q: When will we get a full picture of the start of this year's holiday season?
A: Major retailers' individual sales reports should offer some sense of what shoppers bought, even though most figures exclude online business. Still, those numbers need to be looked at carefully since the figures compare to a steep 7.7 percent drop a year ago, when sales went into freefall. Furthermore, the data excludes figures from the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which stopped reporting sales on a monthly basis after announcing April figures.
Karabus's Lewis noted that the best gauge for season's kickoff and for the overall holiday season will be from stores' quarterly earnings reports, which will be released in February.