Economists saw mixed signals for the holiday shopping season in the latest retail sales data. Online and catalog shopping surged 3 percent, the biggest gain in 13 months. But department store sales fell 0.8 percent. And Americans spent less at stores like Walmart and Target.
A survey last week found Americans' confidence is weakening. Many are starting to worry about the fiscal cliff. Economists say if those tax increases and spending cuts are not averted, the economy would slip into recession.
“With consumer confidence now falling, hopes that retailers would enjoy a robust holiday shopping season are fading,” said Paul Dales, an economist at Capital Economics.
The season got off to a strong start over the Thanksgiving Day holiday. Shoppers hit stores and clicked on websites in record numbers, according to a survey released by the National Retail Federation. Consumers were attracted by efforts to make shopping easier, such as opening stores on Thanksgiving evening to expanding shipping and layaway options.
But since the Black Friday weekend, sales have been disappointing, analysts say. Some stores like Macy's, hurt by Superstorm Sandy, have already extended promotions to make up for lost business.
Retailers are facing many of the same issues they faced last year. Budget-conscious shoppers who splurged over the Thanksgiving weekend are now holding out for better deals and waiting for their bank accounts to recover.
Even healthy online sales have a down side, said Michael Brown, a partner in the retail practice of A.T. Kearney. Online buyers tend to be more focused in their buying. Shoppers linger more in stores and buy more on impulse.
“When you visit a store, you shop. When you go online, you buy targeted items,” Brown said.
Chicago-based ShopperTrak said Thursday that customer visits and sales for the first week of December were both down compared with the same week in 2011. Visits and sales were both higher from the previous week.
ShopperTrak counts foot traffic and its own proprietary sales numbers from 40,000 retail outlets across the U.S.