Ready, Set, Shop!

Retailers are boosting profits by starting holiday sales earlier than ever before

Nov 28, 2012 | By Kelli Plasket with AP reporting

For many Americans, Thanksgiving Day has come to mean one thing—the start of the holiday shopping season. Traditionally, sales began on the day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday. But in recent years, stores and businesses have moved up the start of sales. Many retailers, eager to boost profits, opened on Thursday night this year. That has drawn protests from some workers and consumers. But it seems to have paid off.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), shoppers hit stores and websites in record numbers over this year’s Thanksgiving weekend. At least 35 million consumers shopped online or in stores just on Thanksgiving. Spending over the four-day weekend totaled $59.1 billion, up 12.8% from 2011. The average shopper spent $423 over the weekend.

This year’s record weekend sales are encouraging for retailers, says Matthew Shay, who heads the NRF. It could also be a sign that the U.S. economy is growing stronger. “Retailers and consumers both won this weekend, especially on Thanksgiving,” Shay said.

A Holiday Shopping Spree promotes special deals on Cyber Monday. This year, Americans spent $1.5 billion shopping online on this special sale day.
SCOTT OLSEN—GETTY IMAGES promotes special deals on Cyber Monday. This year, Americans spent $1.5 billion shopping online on this special sale day.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—for the U.S. economy. During the 1980s, Black Friday got its name from the phrase “going into the black,” which is when a company starts making a profit. Some retailers make up to 40% of what they earn in a year during November and December. Stores promote big sales on Black Friday, but they don’t stop there. The Monday after Thanksgiving weekend is now known as Cyber Monday, which is when many Americans start shopping for gifts online. This year, online retailers sold a record $1.5 billion of merchandise on Cyber Monday, a 30% increase over 2011’s Cyber Monday sales.

Smaller businesses and non-profits are also trying to carve out their own days in the holiday shopping season. During Thanksgiving weekend, many local businesses host sales on what they call Small Business Saturday to encourage spending in the community. New this year is Giving Tuesday, which was launched by the United Nations Foundation, New York’s 92nd Street Y and many other partners to promote charitable giving.

The holiday shopping season may have started earlier this year, but it won’t end soon. Online businesses and stores will continue to offer more deals and promotions to draw in shoppers. The NRF estimates that overall sales in November and December will be up 4.1% this year, to $586.1 billion. That is good news for the economy. But is it good for Thanksgiving?