Black Friday store sales fall as Americans buy more online

Black Friday shopping is shifting from hours spent in line to more time online.

Sales at retail stores on Black Friday fell to $10.4 billion this year, down from $11.6 billion in 2014, according to preliminary figures from research firm ShopperTrak.

And sales on Thanksgiving dropped to $1.8 billion from just over $2 billion. ShopperTrak has 1,200 members, including retailers and malls, in the U.S and overseas. Their figures don't include e-commerce.

A big reason for the declines is increased online shopping, as Americans hunt down deals on their smartphones, tablets and computers. Another key factor: Many retailers are offering bargains long before Thanksgiving, limiting the impact of Black Friday specials.

Still, most analysts expect this year's holiday sales to show stronger growth than last year's. Americans are starting to see early signs of pay increases, hiring has been solid in the past year, and low gas prices are leaving more money in shoppers' pockets.

"There's a lot of strength in the consumer," said Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak. Even with the slip in sales, "Black Friday will end up being the number one sales day in retail this year."

Gerri Spencer and her daughter Jasmine Hansen were enthusiastic participants in Black Friday shopping this year. They left Spencer's home at 4 a.m. Friday and were at Cabela's, a hunting and outdoor equipment store, in Kansas City, Kansas, an hour later.

"There was a very long line, a few tents and a lot of lawn chairs," Spencer said. "They posted signs saying you can't have a fire."

Spencer said she spent a little more than normal this year. "I feel the economy has picked up in a few areas, and I felt the pull of the holiday spirit," she said.

Online retailers have been bombarding customers with email discounts for weeks. Online sales jumped 14.3 percent on Friday compared with last year, according to Adobe, which tracked activity on 4,500 retail websites. Email promotions drove 25 percent more sales compared with 2014, the company said.

Chris Christopher, director of consumer economics at consulting firm IHS, predicts that holiday season e-commerce sales will jump 11.7 percent this year to about $95 billion, up from last year's 10.9 percent gain. IHS considers the holiday shopping season to include both November and December.

That's a much larger increase than the 3.5 percent gain Christopher forecasts for total holiday retail sales, including both online and in traditional retail stores. Overall, about $1 in every $7 in holiday shopping sales will occur online this year, IHS predicts.

Retailers have also started offering deep discounts as early as Halloween, even advertising them as "Black Friday" deals, Martin said. Auto dealers have gotten in on the game and are offering "Black Friday" discounts.

"Consumers have shifted and started earlier," Martin added. Americans are doing more of their holiday shopping in November, he said, a decade-long trend, even though December remains the month in which consumers spend the most.

The move toward earlier discounts was intensified this year because many retailers struggled with overstocked warehouses and store shelves heading into the fall, Christopher said. That prompted many to offer deep discounts as early as the beginning of this month.

"The price discounting has been creeping toward Halloween," he said.

Shoppers are even starting to postpone some of their back-to-school purchases until later in the fall, in anticipation of such deals, Christopher said.