Monday, November 30, 2009

A Bad Weekend at Retail Is Good News for Consumers

I may never forget the moment when I drove into the Ikea garage on Friday morning and said, “Oh my God! Are they open?” I had fantasized that I might see the garage nearly full, but in my first glance, the lights were all on, but I couldn’t see any cars at all. It took only a second for me to realize that it would be impossible for any U.S. retail store to close for the day after Thanksgiving — they call it Black Friday, after all. And it took only another second for me to advance far enough to see that there were cars at the front of the garage, filling at least 20 percent of the spaces. It was similar to what you would see at this store on a normal Saturday.

Inside the store, and the various other stores I visited over the weekend, I saw a fair number of shoppers, but without the hype that often accompanies Black Friday and the Thanksgiving weekend. Shoppers were more relaxed, not feeling much pressure. This is partly due to the very limited discounts of this year, but also, I am sure, because shoppers were not putting much pressure on themselves. It was like they were saying, “I have all day to shop, and all I need to be ready for the holidays is these few things I have on my list here.”

That was true inside the stores, at least. Out on the highways on Friday, driving speeds were unusually high with shoppers rushing from store to store. I was startled by the scene of dozens of drivers blowing right past multiple police cars, part of an expanded police presence on the highways for the holiday weekend. Perhaps what this means is that people had limited time for shopping, but were determined not to stress out over it.

What I saw is consistent with the anecdotal reports from the extended shopping weekend. “People are going to buy for the holidays, but they’re not going to go crazy,” as Aaron Task summarized the situation on Tech Ticker. Multiple reports said that shoppers had lists and budgets and were sticking to them.

This may be bad news for retail, but it is good news for consumers, who are buying what they need and want, but not getting sucked into the retail frenzy. Economic statistics will record the reduced retail spending of the holiday season as a negative, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad for the economy. I would rather see consumers continue to pay down their credit card balances, because in the long run, what is good for consumers is good for the economy.