There are reasons to be optimistic about U.S. retail after looking at the Black Friday weekend in total. One measure of online sales on Cyber Monday, weighted toward larger retailers, estimated a 17 percent increase from 2016. Cyber Monday was the standout day in e-commerce this year, unlike a few recent years when more orders went in on Thanksgiving. The extended shopping weekend came earlier on this year’s calendar than in most years and that may have allowed more shoppers to wait until Cyber Monday to place orders.
If a quiet Black Friday was bad news for retail, a quiet Cyber Monday is always good news. This year I did not see any reports of major web store or transaction processing outages on Cyber Monday, something that happened every Cyber Monday as the crush of shoppers pushed the Internet to its limits until that streak was broken in 2016.
Online sales are still a small fraction of retail, so a large increase in e-commerce doesn’t mean retail totals will be up from last year. Retailers are saying we can expect fewer deep discounts, so it won’t be surprising if totals are down slightly from last year, but that would still make this year more profitable at retail than the last two.
Guns were a big part of the shopping weekend. U.S. gun sales are said to have been the highest ever, and by a wide margin, as shoppers bought millions of firearms as Christmas gifts. While that was good news for gun sellers, two incidents of gun violence at malls on Sunday afternoon cast a shadow over the weekend. Injuries were few, but it is easy to underestimate the impact of an active-shooter mall evacuation. More than 10,000 people were directly affected, whether by running for cover, being locked in a store while police secured the building, or having their shopping trip interrupted or canceled by the evacuation and closure. A much larger number, in the millions, were affected by traffic turbulence, hearsay, and news reports. In an era when retailers are already trying to persuade shoppers that it is safe to go shopping, the two gun incidents, coming on the heels of a series of more serious injuries caused by Black Friday fights, provide a significant setback.
Since the weekend, I have seen the usual seasonal increase in lunch-hour traffic at local retail as shoppers look for quick purchases to finish out their Christmas shopping. Cyber Monday might be seen as the finale of the shopping season, but historically, we can expect a two-week lull in stores, followed by a gradual increase in after-work and weekend shopping. There is a risk of a federal government shutdown early in December, though, and if that comes to pass, all bets are off.