Tuesday, December 1

How much have we really learned?

The Nation Retail Federation released the numbers from Black Friday weekend. And people are not optimistic. Apparently, the American consumer just isn't consuming the way he used to.

More people came out this year -- 195 million, compared to last year's 172 million -- but people spent less. And this fills retailers with additional worry that sales won't be up to even their lowered expectations.

The precipitous drop in spending? A whopping $29.16. (Last year it was $372.47, this year $343.31.)

I hate to nitpick about details, but I'd like to make a quick point here:

  • Average spending amount is down 8 percent per person
  • Number of people spending is up 13.4%
  • That means the retailers made more money than last year

That said, if I were a retailer, I would be worried -- just not for the same reasons. People are concerned that shoppers spent less, whereas I'd be worried that more people bothered going out on Black Friday. To me, that means more people are looking for good deals, hoping to spend less (and get shopping done earlier) this holiday season.

This all sounds like such a hopeful thing. People are spending less (okay, only $30 less, on average, but it's something right?) and trying to cash in on available savings. Maybe they've finally had the epiphany. Maybe they finally get it.

So does this mean that Americans are finally learning to keep to a budget when it comes to holiday shopping? In short, no.

What this means is that, even as jobs continue to vanish, even as average families await any sign of the economic upswing, American shoppers will go out (or online) and spend almost $350. Over a four-day period.

Okay, so the $343 is an average. This means that some people spent less. I, for example, spent a whopping $51 on Friday and have yet to get anything else. But an average also means that plenty of people spent more. Some probably spent much, much more.

It's important to note that a lot of people took advantage of discounts on large appliances. That does help explain some of the spending. On the other hand,almost one-third of the 5,000 people surveyed had bought toys. So it's pretty clear that not all sales were ranges or washer/dryers.

Oh, and let's not forget that prices have dropped since last year on many items. Xbox 360 and PS3 consoles both decreased by $100, to make themselves more appealing. And Wal-Mart was selling Nintendo DS systems for $70 less than retail. In other words, people could have been just as rampantly consumerist as last year, but simply had a smaller total.

The really great news, though? Roughtly 40 percent of those surveyed said they were 10 percent -- or less -- done with their holiday shopping. That's hundreds of dollars more spending!

So, assuming this survey is representative (and it's supposed to be, with a 1.4 percent margin of error) then Americans are spending about as blindly as they have in the past. To be more precise, this survey tells us that about 72 percent of Americans have done less than half of their gift buying. After spending, on average, almost $350 in the last five days.

All of this is disheartening enough, but you know what's more? It's going to get worse.

I know it is because, every single year, people swear up and down that they're going to rein in their spending. This year, they say, they're going to keep the number of presents smaller. And they don't.

They go over budget, they take advantage of too many sales, or they just get that last-minute panic most of us have -- that we haven't bought enough for those we care about -- and run out to stock up on some more goodies.

So what have we actually learned? I say not much, if anything at all.

More people went to trouble of waking up early this year for the door buster specials. Perhaps that means some have learned that their time isn't necessarily more valuable than saving a few bucks. Then again, if they end up s

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