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Black Friday Sales Fell This Year, But That's Not Necessarily a Bad Thing for Retailers

What *is* Black Friday, really?

For all the signage, email blasts and promotional noise retailers put out in advance of Black Friday, sales over the weekend wound up lower than they were last year. According to preliminary numbers from the National Retail Federation released Sunday, total spending added up to roughly $50.9 billion, down 11.3 percent from 2013's $57.4 billion. The average person spent about $26 less.

Before you get too optimistic about American consumption exhaustion — or too defeatist about how the retail season will turn out overall — it's worth noting that the drop in spending on this particular weekend may have something to do with what we're going to call Black Friday Sprawl.

Remember when retailers started kicking off Black Friday on the evening of Thanksgiving, only to push their opening times earlier? As NPD Group's Marshal Cohen points out, "Black Friday" sales started well before Thursday this year (forget Friday), meaning you'd really need to look at the entire week to accurately assess how well retailers fared. 

According to data from Adobe Digital Index, online sales offers reached their lowest point on Thanksgiving Day, leading e-commerce shoppers to spend more on Thursday than on Friday.

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A note from researchers at Morgan Stanley released Monday morning also cautions against taking the 11 percent sales drop too literally. With greater lead times on sales, growing e-commerce sales and earlier opening times, the changing time frame on what constitutes Black Friday makes it hard to compare on a year-over-year basis. The Morgan Stanley team does predict that retailers will profit more this holiday season than last.

It does look like shoppers are getting more excited about shopping sales for themselves during the holiday season. The NRF's numbers show that the proportion of Black Friday-goers shopping at least in part for themselves or for non-gift items is up slightly, at 77.2 percent, which suggests that they'll be coming back for gifts later in the season. 

As for online behavior, data from the IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark shows that traffic from mobile devices exceeded traffic coming from PCs for the first time. Online Thanksgiving Day sales were up 14.3 percent relative to last year, with mobile and tablet sales accounting for 52.1 percent of that traffic. And while phones accounted for more than twice the traffic of tablets, consumers proved more apt to buy from an iPads than an iPhone — smartphones are better used for browsing.

Retailers have been working on their mobile and omnichannel strategies for some time now, but for those who haven't: Do so.