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Black Friday brings out discount-hunters across U.S., Europe

black friday shoppers in london
Shoppers walk along Oxford Street during Black Friday in London, Britain November 24, 2023. Reuters/Hollie Adams

Shoppers took to stores across the world on a Black Friday that appeared to be subdued compared to prior years, looking for discounted electronics, clothing and household goods in the kickoff to the holiday shopping season crucial to big retailers.

Brokerage TD Cowen lowered its U.S. holiday spending estimate to 2% to 3% growth, from 4% to 5%, as it forecast flat Black Friday traffic. Retailers’ early holiday discounts in October and November removed the excitement and urgency of Black Friday.

“People have already got what they want,” David Klink, senior analyst at Huntington Private Bank, which owns shares of Walmart and Target. “There are only so many big screen TVs and Alexa [Amazon voice assistants] you can buy.”

With many consumers squeezed by persistent inflation and high interest rates, U.S. holiday spending is expected to rise at the slowest pace in five years. Most major retailers slashed their seasonal hiring. Retailers will likely continue to discount products throughout the holiday shopping season.

A record 130.7 million people are expected to shop in stores and online in the U.S. on Black Friday this year, the National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates. The event is known for crowds lining up at big-box stores at dawn to scoop up discounted TVs and home appliances.

But at 6 a.m. on Friday at a Walmart in New Milford, Connecticut, the parking lot was only half full.

“It’s a lot quieter this year, a lot quieter,” said shopper Theresa Forsberg, who visits the same five stores with her family at dawn every Black Friday. She was at a nearby Kohl’s KSS.N store at 5 a.m.

In Paramus, New Jersey, crowds at the Garden State Plaza mall were thinner than prior years, according to Michael Brown, a partner at consulting firm Kearney, who has checked shopping activity at major retail chains for the past 35 years.

“It wasn’t the good old fashioned kick-the-doors-down-type” shopping event this year, he said. Mall goers “were carrying a bag or two, not the armfuls that you would see in pre-pandemic years. They are not blowing the budget today. They are holding out for a better deal.”

U.S. shoppers plan to spend an average $875 on holiday purchases – $42 more than last year – with clothing, gift cards and toys at the top of most shopping lists, according to a survey of 8,424 adults conducted in early November by the NRF, a U.S. retail trade group.

The Black Friday tradition began in the U.S. but has gone global, as well as moving online.

In France, Italy, and Spain, most shoppers planned to buy clothing on Black Friday, with electronic goods coming second, according to a PwC survey. On average, shoppers in France planned to spend 295 euros ($322), PwC found, with 65% of purchases expected to be made online.

In the UK, transaction volumes were up just 1.4% in the week to Wednesday compared to a year ago, according to Barclays, a bank that sees nearly half the country’s credit and debit card transactions.

“Recently, Black Friday hasn’t been the greatest,” said Naomi Ojomo as she browsed for dresses in a Zara ITX.MC store in Canary Wharf in east London, adding that discounts are less enticing due to many other sales throughout the year.

The rise of online shopping has reduced the importance of Black Friday as a single-day event. Retailers from Macy’s to Amazon AMZN.O launch deals as early as October and often offer additional discounts closer to Christmas, Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette told investors this month.

Shoppers spent a record $5.6  billion online on Thanksgiving Day, data from Adobe Analytics showed, a 5.5% increase in online spending compared to last year, in line with projections.

Thanksgiving Day discounts online peaked at about 28% for toys, while electronics had discounts as steep as 27%, Adobe said. Barbie dolls, Marvel action figures, Playstation 5 and videogame “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III” were hot sellers.

Adobe expects Black Friday to have the best deals on televisions, with discounts of 22%. Clothing, appliances, sporting goods and furniture will also have deep discounts but prices will go even lower by Cyber Monday.

DEEPER DISCOUNTS

Some retailers hold their biggest markdowns for the Thanksgiving weekend, and big-box players including Walmart WMT.N, Lowe’s LOW.N and Home Depot HD.N maintained or deepened their advertised discounts. Whether those deals will attract inflation-weary consumers is the biggest worry for retailers.

Best BuyBBY.N is offering between $100 and $1,600 off electronics including laptops, flat-screen TVs and KitchenAid mixers after telling investors this week that shoppers are holding off on big-ticket purchases.

“Air fryers, energy efficient washing machines as people look to save cash on their energy bills, and upright vacuum cleaners are proving to be the most popular products,” said John Roberts, founder and CEO of British online retailer AO World AO.L.

British retailer Argos SBRY.L said the PlayStation 5 gaming console, Beats wireless headphones, and Apple AirPods were among its top-selling products on Black Friday.

A downturn in luxury spending prompted department stores including Bergdorf Goodman and Nordstrom JWN.N to offer steep discounts on items such as Balenciaga shoes and Oscar de la Renta earrings.

“I think people are going to still spend on travel and leisure activities that might be online and not necessarily in stores,” said Jimmy Lee, CEO of Wealth Consulting Group which holds Amazon shares.

“The excitement of waiting in lines on Black Friday – there’s not as much of that anymore. A lot of people …. would rather just sit at home and look for deals.”

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