Americans spent an average of $360.15 per person last weekend, some 19% more than on the weekend after Thanksgiving the prior year, according to the NRF. Despite packed parking lots and long lines, the stampede didn't benefit all retailers the same. Traffic dropped by double digits at discount stores, including Wal-Mart, declining to 49.6% from 60.7% in 2005.
As a result, Wal-Mart, despite aggressive discounting and an early holiday-advertising campaign, just one day after Black Friday warned that its same-store sales will actually fall 0.1% when it reports its final November numbers later this week.
Traffic also dipped at department stores, to 38.8% of shoppers vs. 47% in 2005. It was the same story at specialty retailers and clothing stores, which saw overall traffic drop to 37.5%, compared to 41.2% in 2005.
So how do analysts reconcile the traffic declines in these retail channels with an overall increase in spending?
With gas prices down and consumer confidence higher than a year ago, shoppers were less willing to jump through hoops for deals, and more consumers shopped online, where sales on Black Friday grew to an average $82, up from $70.80 per consumer in 2005.
"Consumers are more purposely shopping," said Gary Drenik, an analyst with Columbus-based Big Research. "There's less this mentality of 'I've got to go out and shop 15 different places in one day.' This year, many went to only a handful of stores instead."
This shift in buying behavior and retail traffic patterns reflects the increasing power of internet-gleaned information, said Pat Conroy, an analyst with Deloitte. "Time-pressed consumers are doing more research online and they are more surgical in how they shop," he said.
This more information-rich shopping style, and how retailers respond, will separate the winners and losers this holiday season. "Those that have a strong and seamless multichannel offering will have the advantage," he added.
In fact, the busiest bricks-and-mortar retail site on Black Friday was Wal-Mart.com, with 3.2 billion unique visitors, followed by Target.com with 2.3 billion and BestBuy.com with 1.6 billion, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
Despite problems of intermittent shutdowns reported at Wal-Mart.com on Black Friday, the season and online battle is far from over. "The hiccup was the website shutdown, in some ways that was a good thing because there were a lot of people trying to get there," Mr. Conroy said. "It shows some demand that was aimed at Wal-Mart and their promotions and discounts."
And despite technical problems, Wal-Mart came out swinging this Cyber Monday, launching a five-day sales blitz on its website, focusing on the hot electronics sector and toys and offering everything from digital cameras for $49 and roller-coaster play sets for $35, as well as cashmere scarves for $16.88.
The final word on Black Friday won't be known until Nov. 30, when most retailers -- including Costco, J.C. Penney, Sears and Target -- report final numbers for the critical month.
And despite the fierce battle online, none of the top retailers, including Wal-Mart and Target, have yet to break out e-commerce sales in financial results.