Black Friday's Big Lesson Has Nothing to Do With the Recovery

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This year's Thanksgiving sales don't tell us anything about the health of our economy. But they do show us something about its digital future.

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Reuters

The American shopper is back! Or is she?

Here's what the Black Friday/Cyber Monday numbers tell us: Americans just spent a lot of money. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans spent a record $52 billion dollars through Sunday. That doesn't include the online retail haul from Cyber Monday. Online sales on Cyber Monday eclipsed last year's record of $1.03 billion, according to Coremetrics.

Here's what the numbers don't tell us: anything useful about the recovery. Are shoppers really more confident about the economy? Or are they just desperate for deals? We don't know. The last time shoppers spent this much over Thanksgiving were the dark days of 2008. Afterwards, holiday sales promptly fell off a cliff.

But this weekend's shopping spree provides another important lesson. It tells us how we shop. The key storyline of Thanksgiving 2011 is not about mobs lining up at midnight. It's about buyers leaning back with iPads after the big family dinner. It's about the continuing rise of online, and especially mobile, shopping.

Consider these numbers. On Black Friday, in-store purchases increased about 7%. But online, Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday sales jumped by 39%, 24% and 33%, respectively.

Growth in mobile was even more explosive. PayPal reported that payments via phones and tablets were up more than 500% on each of the three major shopping days. IBM said mobile devices were responsible for 9.8% percent of online Black Friday sales, up from 3.2% a year ago.

So no, mobile hasn't replaced good old fashioned Black Friday chaos. It hasn't even replaced regular old web browsing. But it's arrived as a key piece of holiday commerce. And it's only going to get bigger.

That has implications across business. For retail, it means adjusting to customers who are harder to lure and more discriminating. More people are doing their shopping while sitting with family on Thanksgiving proper rather than waiting for a trip to the mall the next day. And when they do make that trip to Macy's or Target, shoppers can browse the aisles phone in hand, comparing prices. For Silicon Valley, it underscores the need to win the mobile arms race. In the end, the fates of the tech's giants are tied to our shopping habits. Google and Facebook live off ads. Amazon lives off eCommerce. And as more and more Americans shop on phones and tablets, owning those spaces will be ever more crucial to their business models. It's why Amazon has the Kindle Fire, and why Facebook is working on a new phone with HTC.

Thanksgiving sales won't tell us whether the economy is about to take off. But they do tell us what we've become as a shopping culture. More than that, as the biggest consumer nation on earth, it tells us where we're headed as a business culture. Our future is on our phones. And the companies that learn to compete in that environment are the companies that will survive.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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