NEW YORK— An early start to this year's U.S. holiday Shopping season may not necessarily ring-up bigger holiday sales for retailers. Eager to entice cautious consumers, especially with six fewer shopping days this year than in 2012, many retailers offered sales on Thanksgiving, traditionally a day for family, friends and football games.
Even Macy's flagship store in New York opened at 8 p.m., the first time ever on the American holiday. As a result, some U.S. shoppers may have hit malls and stores on Thanksgiving, rather than during the traditional “Black Friday” blitz.
By late morning, the number of shoppers in many stores more closely resembled a normal Saturday than the usual frenzied Black Friday kickoff to the holiday season.
“It's a lot less than I thought,” said Alison Goodwin, from Horsham, Pennsylvania, who ventured to the Willow Grove Park mall the day after Thanksgiving in search of holiday gifts and maybe a treat for herself. “It's like any weekend in December,” Goodwin said of the size of the crowd.
Terry Lundgren, Macy's Inc Chief Executive, said the Thanksgiving flagship Manhattan store opening lured an estimated 15,000 shoppers. Roughly 11,000 shoppers turned out at the store for last year's Black Friday midnight open.
“It's not just spreading out traffic over last year but it's also increasing it,” Lundgren said of the department store overall. He declined to say how much he expects the additional shopping to increase sales.
The National Retail Federation is predicting that holiday sales will increase a marginal 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion, leaving retailers to battle for a bigger slice of that somewhat larger pie.
This year's holiday shopping results likely will mimic the slow-growing U.S. economy and leave little to write home about, said Can Erbil, an adjunct associate professor of economics at Boston College.
“Last year's shopping season was actually pretty bad. The Connecticut school shootings, Hurricane Sandy, and fiscal cliff fears really hit the shopping season hard. So the benchmark is low,” Erbil said.
Thanksgiving proved bright for one sliver of retail - online sales. Overall Thanksgiving online sales were up 19.7 percent from last year and the average order value was $127.59, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark.
Early Black Friday turnout was thin at Willow Grove Park mall, in a Philadelphia suburb. Early morning shoppers included Emily Arkowitz and Ashlee Ryan, two friends on their first-ever Black Friday excursion and browsing at an H&M clothing store at 7:30 a.m. EST.
“We walked in thinking that all the clothes would be gone,” said Arkowitz of Haverton, Pennsylania.
The store sold out of many specials, according to a manager, but many Black Friday deals were still advertised on clothing racks, including a $4.95 sweater and $14.95 dress.
Turned off by crowds and last night's long lines at a nearby Abercrombie & Fitch, Pranav Trivedi, a shopper from Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, went home, napped, and returned early on Friday.
“I didn't want to waste my time like that,” he said. While shoppers snapped up sale priced flat-screen televisions at stores like Target, Walmart and Best Buy - not everyone was impressed by the “deals” being touted by retailers.
For Luis Figueiro, a retired Brazilian on vacation in New York, Black Friday ended early. “This is madness,” he said, sitting in a massage chair, pointing at the crowd at Macy's flagship store on Thanksgiving night. There are so many people here, you can't see any of the things on sale.”
His wife, Irene, traveled with him from Rio with Black Friday deals in mind, but was disappointed to find that many items were not discounted.
“If someone comes without a clear notion of prices, it awakens something in you. But if you know what the items usually cost, you aren't fazed,” she said.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc U.S. Chief Executive Bill Simon said Thanksgiving visits to its stores surpassed last year's 22 million mark, although a swarm of online shoppers crashed its online site.
“We are encouraged by the start to the Black Friday shopping weekend,” Simon told CNN.