Black Friday Points to a Grim Holiday Season for Retailers

If you were counting on what Glenn Reynolds calls "the retail support brigade" to come riding over the hills, you might want to rethink. After last year turned in one of the worst holiday shopping seasons in decades, people were hoping that things might perk up this year, but Black Friday's results don't look too good for retailers.  Sales were up a paltry 0.5% from last year, and that only because a lot more people came out bargain-hunting.

Sales on the day after Thanksgiving rose just 0.5% to $10.66 billion, according to ShopperTrak RCT Corp., a research firm that monitors sales at more than 50,000 stores. That compared with a 3% year-over-year Black Friday increase in 2008 and an 8.3% surge in 2007.

"It's a positive sign that we had an increase in sales, but the numbers certainly don't indicate that those will be sustained," said Britt Beemer, chairman of consumer behavior firm America's Research Group.

Nationwide, 195 million shoppers visited stores and websites over the four-day weekend, up from 172 million last year, the National Retail Federation said Sunday.

It's too early to be certain, of course, but to me this points to a brutal trend:  everyone is looking for bargains, and refusing to buy anything else.  That means that profit margins are likely to be thin, and even with aggressive discounting, retailers may not be able to drive much volume.

What's bad for retailers may be good for us, of course.  The amount of consumer credit outstanding has fallen pretty dramatically, but because of the buying binge we were on, it's still kinda high, as is the ratio of debt service payments to income.  On the other hand, many of us are retailers, or work for them, or for companies that sell all the things that Americans aren't buying.  The contraction is probably necessary.  But it is not going to be pleasant.