After the holiday shopping, football and self-loathing that accompanies shoveling down half a pecan pie will come the reports about how retailers fared during the Black Friday weekend. But whether those numbers come in at record highs or fantastic lows, it will signal very little about how the holiday retail season will go, or even about the economy more broadly.
Data provided by the National Retail Federation show that even amid wide holiday spending fluctuations, Thanksgiving weekend sales have in recent years tended to only grow. In 2006, for example, the foundation counted $34.4 billion in Black Friday weekend sales, or around $40 billion in 2013 dollars. That same year, holiday sales were around $594 billion, according to Census Bureau data compiled by the NRF. In 2012, Thanksgiving weekend sales were far higher than six years ago, at around $60 billion, but total holiday sales were lower, at around $588 billion.
"Black Friday is an interesting day but not necessarily a barometer for the whole holiday season," says Bill Martin, founder of retail analytics firm Shoppertrak. He says that's in part because retailers have trained shoppers to expect huge discounts on Black Friday weekend – discounts that are not in place normally.
Indeed, while a strong Black Friday might signal confident consumers, it also can signal that consumers want to shop, but only as long as they can get 60 percent off.
"In 2009 when the economy tanked, basically, there were record numbers out and about during Black Friday weekend," says Kathy Grannis, a spokesperson for the NRF. "In a good economy, people have less of a reason to set the alarm."
It's not just Black Friday weekend that has seen strong sales growth; Martin says holiday shopping is creeping ever further into November, thanks to retailers promoting holiday shopping ever earlier.
"Even though Black Friday has been the top selling day of the year, we've seen stronger sales in November but then softer sales in December," he says. But since November has grown at the expense of December, he adds that a stronger November, like a strong Thanksgiving weekend, is likewise not indicative that consumers are ready to spend big.
"You can't really look at November and say, 'Oh, it was great. Therefore, we're going to have a great holiday season,'" he says.
One other manifestation of that relentlessly earlier shopping push is the trend of stores opening on Thanksgiving. Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Kmart are just a few of the major retailers that will open their doors on Turkey Day. If this trend continues, Martin says, it may dethrone Black Friday as the biggest shopping day of the year.
"If we see that opening on Thursday continues to gain momentum at the expense of Friday, eventually we might see Super Saturday gain the top spot once again someday," he says, referring to the final Saturday before Christmas. But when it comes to the four-day Thanksgiving shopping-fest, it's a different story, he says: "From a weekend standpoint, Black Friday is still going to be the king."