Amarilis Sinchi visited Macy's at a New Jersey mall on Black Friday, but she waited until this week to purchase the red fleece pajamas she had her eye on.
The 21-year-old student ended up paying $13 at the department store, down from $30 on Friday, which has traditionally been the best day for deals during the U.S. holiday season. “The prices keep getting better,” she said, planning a return to another store - Kohl's - which had dropped the price on LEGO toys.
Retailers started discounting early this holiday season, but that hasn't stopped them from stepping up the offers now, particularly on apparel. The increasingly fierce struggle for consumer dollars online is adding to pressure for lower prices at stores, where mobile device-toting customers compare prices as they shop.
Many deals are being extended and deepened, visits to malls and data from price tracking firms show, and analysts see many retailers' margins being compressed, especially in apparel.
“We're experiencing post-holiday promotions even before the holiday is in full swing,” said Steven Barr, U.S. Retail and Consumer Leader at consultants PwC, who has not seen such a high level of deals at this stage of the season before. On one trip to a mall, an apparel store dropped a discount from 40 percent to 50 percent while he ate lunch.
“We expect this is going to be the most promotional holiday on record,” challenging profits in the sector, he said.
Consumers remain cautious about spending despite lower gasoline prices and an improved jobs and housing market, surveys by Reuters/Ipsos show. Wages growth has been very limited while food and healthcare costs have risen.
People do generally appear to be getting more price conscious. In a survey this summer conducted by PwC, 84 percent of respondents said they chose a store because of the prices it offers, up from 74 percent in 2013.
The 10 retailers with the most traffic and sales more than doubled the number of discounted items online during the week after Black Friday, according to data from TrackIf, a service that tracks prices across nearly 2,000 retail websites.
To be sure, retailers with unique or popular products have avoided big price cuts, and there is substantial variation between companies and types of merchandise. Many retailers have gone into the season with less inventory than previous years, and mainstream forecasters expect holiday sales will rise around 4 percent for the year, despite the discounting.
But already some retail earnings and stock prices are being hurt by weak sales and the increased level of discounting, in particular at teen clothing store chains. Teen buyers preferring to spend on phones and gadgets rather than clothes has been hurting that sector for some time.
Some retailers hurt badly
Shares of teen retailer Aeropostale dropped Wednesday to a 52-week low after it reported a larger-than-expected fourth-quarter loss. Like apparel retailers Express and Abercrombie & Fitch, Aeropostale was hurt by discounting and slowing demand. On Friday, teen retailer Delia*s said it would file for bankruptcy.
“The gross margins are being pressured,” said Nomura retail analyst Simeon Siegel. Apparel retailers, he said, can't cut prices much more than 50 percent without losing money, so many are trying to win sales by extending the time they offer discounts.
Companies that track discounts can discern a significant change. Last year, online prices from traditional retailers were lowest on Black Friday for a variety of products in many categories, according to Market Track. But this year, for instance, it found prices of kitchenware fell in the days after Black Friday, by 13 percent at Sears and 47 percent at Macy's.
ShopSavvy, which tracks merchandise and prices for the top 100 online and in-store retailers based on their traffic and sales, compared discounts in five categories of items at 32 of these merchants on Black Friday and early this week. Computers, clothing and home and garden products showed widening discounts. Electronics and entertainment products were cheaper on Black Friday itself.
ShopSavvy CEO John Boyd said that the rise of mobile and online commerce was driving retailers to spread discounts beyond Friday. This year's move toward post-Black Friday bargains was “materially stronger” than previous years, he said.
Most stores also didn't wait until the holiday weekend to start discounts, said ShopSavvy, which also found that many of the big retailers were offering the same deals as online retailer Amazon.com.
Ecommerce researcher Profitero found online discounts of some 41,000 toys, electronics and sporting goods at Amazon, Best Buy, Toys R Us and Walmart held steady on this week's Cyber Monday compared with last week's Black Friday.
A Macy's spokesman said the retailer plans its promotions in advance. Other retailers declined to comment on holiday pricing strategies.
Standing in the Newport Center mall in Jersey City, New Jersey, that he has visited regularly over the last eight years, Moody's analyst Charles O'Shea said that while he's seen strong sales of electronics at stores like Best Buy and Target , many apparel retailers already were marking down merchandise.
Walking into a Sears store, he flipped over tag after tag, showing deep discounts on almost all apparel. Some stores, such as American Eagle, were offering shoppers the chance to buy one item and get 50 percent off a second.
Standing outside an Aeropostale, O'Shea pointed at a sign advertising up to 70 percent off. Inside, stacks of neatly folded sweaters were marked down to $14 from $44.50.
That's a good indication that Thanksgiving holiday weekend sales “weren't what they wanted,” he said. “They have to get stuff out of there.”