Black Friday Results: Good, Bad, So-So

The holiday shopping season got off to a strong start—or was that a lackluster start? It depends on whom you ask.

MasterCard reported a 9.3% increase in transactions during the three-day Thanksgiving weekend compared with a year ago. Competitor Visa USA reported an even greater rise in transactions, 14.3%.

Trade association National Retail Federation (NRF) said that 133 million Americans—46% of the U.S. population—were shopping in stores Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, spending $22.8 million. The group estimates that holiday sales will rise 4.5% this year, to $220 billion. That’s slightly less than last year’s 5.1% increase in holiday spending.

“We’ve got a strong weekend, but this is a marathon, and the weeks before and after Christmas will be key for retailers,” NRF vice president Scott Krugman said in a statement.

But another trade association, International Council of Shopping Centers, characterized the unofficial first weekend of the holiday shopping season as “modest.” According to the group’s chief economist, Michael Niemira, “Friday overall was strong, but Saturday was weak and disappointing, so together it was only a modest two-day performance.”

The nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores, has already cut its November sales forecast following disappointing Black Friday sales. It had expected a 2%-4% rise in November same-store sales, on Saturday it reduced its forecast to a 0.7% increase. Some analysts say that discount stores and other merchants that cater to lower-income consumers may have a rough time of it this season. “Discounters’ core shoppers have less discretionary income,” BIGresearch vice president Phil Rist said in a statement, “and are the most likely to be affected by higher gas prices.”

Another possible reason for Wal-Mart’s disappointing sales may have been its reluctance to offer discounts and promotions from the get-go, unlike other major retailers such as J.C. Penney Co. and Sears, Roebuck & Co.