Shoppers are shopping, and retailers feel holiday cheer

A National Retail Federation survey found that 174 million Americans made purchases over the five-day weekend. Above: Shoppers moved in and out of Primark at the Burlington Mall on Friday.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
A National Retail Federation survey found that 174 million Americans made purchases over the five-day weekend. Above: Shoppers moved in and out of Primark at the Burlington Mall on Friday.

After a year that saw sluggish sales and a record number of store closures, more shoppers than expected turned out for the official kickoff to the holiday shopping season, and Monday was projected to break records for a single day of online shopping.

While analysts say it’s too soon to tally the total spending for the holiday weekend, a National Retail Federation survey found that 174 million Americans made purchases over the five-day weekend that included Thanksgiving — 10 million more than had been projected. The turnout has bolstered the outlook for retailers heading into the next few weeks of the holiday shopping season.

“The weekend looked and felt great, and the numbers validate that optimism,” said the federation’s president and chief executive, Matthew Shay. “The combination of high consumer sentiment and the health of the macroeconomy is a very good thing for the overall industry.” 


Retail analysts credited several factors for the uptick, including clear weather across the country during the shopping weekend and strong stock market growth over the past year. They also pointed to the increasing use of technology, by both retailers and shoppers, who made significantly more mobile purchases this year. Apparel, personal computers, televisions, and networked home devices were among the top sellers over the holiday weekend. 

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Consumer confidence was up because, for the first time in a long time, the holiday weekend was relatively calm, Shay said.

“We didn’t have any other disruptive external factors that contributed to disruption in consumer psyche,” he said. In the last several years, Shay said, inclement weather, looming government shutdowns, and, last year, a controversial election all helped to drive down consumer confidence — a key metric that can help determine how much shoppers are willing to spend each year. 

Online shopping has been surging, with Amazon estimated to account for between 45 and 50 percent of all online Black Friday sales, according to early reporting from the GBH Insights research firm. And Cyber Monday sales were projected to hit a record at $6.59 billion, making it the largest online sales day in history, according to Adobe Analytics’ retail report, which tracks 80 percent of the online transactions at the largest 100 US Web retailers. Purchases made on mobile devices in particular saw a significant jump, with consumers spending $2 billion on their smartphones, according to Adobe.  

“That was not something I saw coming,” said Tamara Gaffney, the senior director of Adobe Digital Insights. Historically, people shopping on their phones have bought fewer items and were less likely to complete their transactions than people shopping on their computers.


Advances in technology and artificial intelligence can partially be credited for the spike, said Rob Garf, the Boston-based vice president for industry strategy and insights for Salesforce’s Commerce Cloud, which tracks the digital sales of 500 million shoppers globally. And the integration of easy mobile payment options such as Apple Pay and Android Pay have led to a sharp uptick in sales made on smartphones, he said.

“Retailers and brands have historically stubbed their toes quite a bit with making the mobile experience on the phone easy,” he said. “Now they’ve cracked the code and broken down that friction from the moment when someone is inspired” to when a sale gets made.

nd more stores are harnessing the data gathered from past purchases and using artificial intelligence tools to target consumers with specific marketing promotions. Stores using Salesforce’s tools sent out 3 billion Black Friday-related e-mails this year, nearly 500 million more than last year, Garf said, and sent out 82 million push notifications to shoppers’ smartphones, which helped lead to a 32 percent increase in sales growth over last year. 

“What we saw is tremendous digital growth across the entire cyber week,” Garf said. 

Shoppers who spent money both online and in stores spent much more than those who chose one method over the other, according to the National Retail Federation survey. It’s a promising statistic, Shay said, and a reflection of the overall trend of meeting shoppers wherever they need, or want, to shop. 


“That’s why you’re seeing the bricks-and-mortar stores put more investments into online and e-commerce, and that’s why you’re seeing the online-only stores getting into bricks and mortar,” he said. Young adults in particular spent the most over the five-day period, or $419.50 on average, and half of them chose to shop at department stores or on their websites.

The calendar is also helping things this season: With Christmas falling on a Monday, it will mean shoppers get an additional full shopping weekend this December. Last year, stores saw a huge spike in sales on the last Saturday before Christmas — it was the biggest shopping day of the year — and retailers are anticipating more of the same. 

“It’s a bright spot, and a cheery surprise,” said Leon Nicholas, a senior vice president with Kantar Retail in Boston. But it probably won’t be enough to overcome what has been a difficult year for retailers. In April, a Credit Suisse research report estimated more than 8,600 stores would close their doors in 2017. The previous worst year on record was during the Great Recession, in 2008, when 6,163 stores shut down.

If stores want to keep the shoppers they saw over the holiday weekend, they have to be creative and offer unique experiences and special deals, and ensure that inventory will meet shoppers’ expectations.

“Retailers should take heart and should capitalize on having more shoppers in their stores,” Nicholas said. “But you have to give them a reason to come back.” 

Janelle Nanos can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.