- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Shoppers who snapped up Black Friday deals gave retailers a needed boost, but stores are by no means out of the woods with three weeks remaining before the holiday.

The average amount spent per person over the weekend increased 7.2 percent from last year to $372.57 as more than 172 million shoppers visited stores and Web sites and spent approximately $41 billion, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF), a Washington-based trade group.

Brick-and-mortar-store sales increased by 3 percent on Friday, the smallest increase in three years, according to ShopperTrak RTC Corp., which tracks total retail sales at more than 50,000 retail outlets.

After soft sales in October and most of November and predictions of a dismal shopping season, consumers responded to bargains offered the day after Thanksgiving.

“There’s always hope that numbers could be better,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, a retail analyst with Boston-based Forrester Research. Retailers are also concerned about maintaining sales and pulling in consumers who are still reluctant to spend.

Before the weekend, Ms. Mulpuru, an online retail expert, said that slow sales could lead to bigger discounts and promotions through the rest of the season. Thought preliminary numbers show a slight increase in sales over the weekend, Monday’s results will be more of an indication of what online retailers can expect.

Thursday and Friday online sales increased 2 percent from 2007, though e-commerce from the first 23 days of November was down 4 percent compared with the same period last year, according to Chicago digital marketing firm comScore.

So far, retailers have noticed that the number of items per transaction was up, according to Ms. Mulpuru, but total sales have not increased as significantly, meaning shoppers are purchasing smaller or cheaper items, getting the most for their dollar.

Along with the perpetual search for bargains, shoppers were definitely procrastinating this season, hoping to find bargains, Ms. Mulpuru said. “That’s the only answer for a soft November and a really, really strong Black Friday.”

An NRF survey indicated that thanks to the holiday weekend, shoppers have 39.3 percent of their gift buying done, compared with 36.4 percent this time last year.

This indicates that retailers can expect moderate December shopping, according to the NRF.

“Holiday sales are not expected to continue at this brisk pace, but it is encouraging that Americans seem excited to go shopping again,” said NRF President and CEO Tracy Mullin.

However, retailers will be trying to lure shoppers with specially targeted e-mails and deep discounts on select items to fuel the treasure-hunt mentality that may drive traffic, according to Ms. Mulpuru.

“It’s not smooth sailing, by any means,” she said.