Oh what a difference a weekend can make.
Shoppers taking advantage of big discounts and earlier store hours during the start of the holiday shopping season last weekend helped boost retailers' revenue for the entire month of November.
Retailers from Macy's to Costco on Thursday reported monthly revenue at stores open at least a year _ an indicator of a merchant's health _ that beat Wall Street estimates. The overall tally for the 21 retailers that reported revenue for November rose 3.2 percent, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
November results offer an important benchmark for retailers and economists. During the holiday shopping season, merchants can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue. The period that runs from November through December also gives valuable insights into what it takes to get Americans to spend in the weak economy.
The monthly numbers were boosted by the four-day weekend starting on Thanksgiving Day, the traditional kickoff the shopping season. Americans spent $52.4 billion over the weekend, the highest total ever recorded during that time, according to the National Retail Federation. But they were lured in by earlier store hours and deep discounts.
"Clearly, consumers are focused on those bargains," said ICSC chief economist Mike Niemira. "It's a bit tougher to get shoppers to buy from a year ago."
The November figures offer a glimpse into what the holiday season might be like for retailers, but they represent only a small slice of the retail industry.
Dollar stores, home-improvement chains like Best Buy, consumer electronics stores like Home Depot and even Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, don't report monthly revenue. And some big chains like Target and J.C. Penney missed Wall Street forecasts.
Still, retailers can glean a lot from the numbers.
For instance, well-heeled shoppers continue to be resilient in the weak economy. Luxury chain Saks Inc., which operates Saks Fifth Avenue, fared well, reporting a 9.3 percent increase. That's better than the 6.1 percent increase analysts had expected.
Macy's, which operates the Macy's and upscale Bloomingdale's department store chains, also posted a 4.8 percent gain, above the 3.9 percent increase that Wall Street analysts had expected. The company's Macy's chain, which was among the retailers who opened at midnight on Thanksgiving evening, benefited from the earlier opening.
"A strong Black Friday punctuated our very positive sales performance throughout November," said Terry J. Lundgren, Macy's chairman, president and chief executive in a statement.
But not every retailer had a strong showing in November. Those targeting lower and middle-income shoppers face an uphill battle to get shoppers to spend.
"The lower-income shoppers are postponing their purchases or were cherry picking the deals," said Walter Loeb, a New York-based independent retail consultant.
Target posted a 1.8 percent increase, below the 2.8 percent gain that Wall Street analysts had expected. The discounter blamed the month's performance in part to lackluster toy sales.
Additionally, the discounter told analysts in November that rival Wal-Mart's holiday layaway program that allows customers to pay-as-they go for certain gifts, hurt toy sales. Wal-Mart also has been heavily pushing low prices in its ad campaign, which likely hurt Target.
J.C. Penney, which targets middle-income shoppers, also reported disappointing results. The retailer said its decision not to open at midnight on Thanksgiving evening hurt revenue on the day after the holiday, which set the tone for the remainder of the weekend.
J.C. Penney reported a 2.0 percent sales drop, worse than the 1.8 percent decline that analysts had expected.
"Sales remained soft in-store throughout the holiday weekend," the company said in statement.