Brisk Post-Thanksgiving Sales May Be Tough to Maintain

Record Numbers of Shoppers Push Retail Sales Up 16%

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U.S. consumers stormed the malls and took to the web during Thanksgiving weekend, spending a record $52.4 billion at a pace that may be hard to sustain as the holiday shopping season gets under way.

Retail sales climbed 16%, and shoppers spent an average of $399, up from $365 a year earlier, the National Retail Federation said yesterday, citing a survey from BIGresearch. A record 226 million people went shopping during the Thanksgiving weekend, compared with 212 million last year.

Web sales surged 26% on Black Friday, to $816 million, and 18% on Thanksgiving Day, to $479 million, said ComScore, a research firm based in Reston, Va.

"There seems to be a bit of an exhale happening" with U.S. consumers, said Ellen Davis, vice president at NRF. "They feel like it's OK to spend a little bit more."

People shopped in fewer destinations and spent more money, which suggests that they weren't buying only the merchandise advertised in circulars, Ms. Davis added.

Shoppers took advantage of deals and earlier openings at retailers from Gap to Walmart to Toys R Us. Apparel and electronic sales were particularly strong, said NRF. With the national jobless rate averaging 9% this year, the results indicate that employed consumers are willing to spend.

"It's a good, encouraging sign the consumer is out there despite all the distractions," said Marshal Cohen, an analyst at NPD Group, a research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y. "We'll have an OK holiday," he said, adding a caveat that the strength of the Thanksgiving holiday may have simply pulled sales forward from December.

Brisk Black Friday sales may illustrate a gap between what consumers tell pollsters and how they actually behave -- a trend that has prevailed for much of 2011, according to Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics, a research firm in Swampscott, Mass. Industrywide, monthly same-store sales have gained for more than two years and missed analysts' projections once this year, according to Retail Metrics.

"A solid Black Friday suggests the rest of the season should be pretty good," Mr. Perkins said. "Those who have jobs have been willing to spend."

While some shoppers have said they plan to cut back this season, others say they will spend more because their financial prospects have improved. Still, the NRF is maintaining its estimate for a sales increase of 2.8% this holiday season, or about half of the 5.2% gain in 2010.

Analysts will have another opportunity to assess consumer resilience today, when online merchants dangle deals in what has become known as Cyber Monday. On Thursday, retailers report sales at stores open at least a year -- a key retail metric.

-- Bloomberg News

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