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Fewer Americans shopped during Thanksgiving weekend than last year

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Fewer Americans shopped during Thanksgiving weekend than they did last year, but more of them did so in person, data released Tuesday shows.

An estimated 180 million Americans shopped in stores or online in the five days between Thanksgiving Day and Cyber Monday, down from 186 million last year and 190 million in 2019, the National Retail Federation said. That drop is partly a reflection of people starting their holiday shopping earlier, as evidenced by the significant rise in retail sales recorded in October. Analysts say it remains to be seen whether the new omicron strain of the coronavirus variant - news of which broke just before Black Friday - will weigh on holiday shopping.

"A lot of consumers are holding their breaths, trying to figure out what's going on with the omicron variant," said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. "But the fact that there is a variant throws uncertainty into the mix - and uncertainty isn't great for consumers or retailers."

This holiday season is a crucial one for the retail industry, which has been dogged by supply chain hiccups, as well as shipping delays and labor shortages. Many of the nation's largest chains have spent millions chartering boats and planes to get inventory in on time.

But even then, experts say wild cards remain. Many consumers remain hesitant to shop in stores and malls, particularly as cities and counties do away with masks mandates and other precautionary measures, according to Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst for Forrester.

"Things were starting to improve for retailers, but that could change if this new variant starts scaring people away," she said.

Though the number of people shopping in person ticked up from last year, the figure is markedly lower than it was before the pandemic. Some 105 million Americans hit stores and malls Thursday through Monday, compared with 90 million last year and 124 million in 2019. There were 130 million online shoppers, 10% less than the 145 million recorded in 2020.

"The obvious [trend] here is that consumers are starting earlier than ever," NRF chief executive Matthew Shay said in a call with reporters. "The Thanksgiving weekend, and Black Friday in particular, are closer to halftime now than the kickoff."

He added that concerns over a new variant could bode well for retailers if shoppers shift spending away from experiences - such as dining out, traveling or going to the theater - to goods.

Clothing and toys were among the most-purchased categories during the five-day weekend, followed by gift cards and books, movies and video games. Shoppers spent an average of $301 on holiday gifts, decor, clothing and toys, down from last year's $312, according to NRF.

Overall, the trade group is forecasting that holiday sales will grow as much as 10.5% from last year, to a record $859 billion.

Rising prices and early holiday shopping sent retail sales surging 1.7% in October, but economists say the spike likely contributed to the slowdown in Black Friday and Cyber Monday spending. During Thanksgiving weekend, shoppers spent $33.9 billion online, 1.4% less than they did last year, according to data from Adobe Analytics. Analysts there noted that weak discounts and high rates of out-of-stock goods may have also contributed to lower spending.

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