Images

There was still the usual Black Friday mayhem this year, but the throngs weren't as big as they've been in years past. This photo is from 2013. Photo: Flickr via Powhusku.

Black Friday was supposed to be a blowout. A strong economy and lower gas prices were supposed to lift sales to $13.1 billion on that day alone, according to some estimates, with the three-day weekend rising almost 2% to $36.7 billion. Add in Thanksgiving Day and Cyber Monday and many analysts were anticipating sales would exceed last year's record $57.4 billion.

It didn't work out that way. Sales over the five-day period actually fell 11% to an estimated $50.9 billion.

According to the National Retail Federation, U.S. shoppers spent on average $380.95 per person over the holiday weekend, down 6% from the $407.02 they spent last year. Of that amount, even those who went looking for deals online spent less: $159.55 versus $177.67.

But the numbers don't necessarily indicate that people are buying less.

Part of the problem is the waning influence Black Friday and the days surrounding it hold on consumer spending patterns. Retailers have pushed the envelope on when the Christmas season begins and then discounted deeper than they have previously.

Sears Holdings (NASDAQ:SHLD) has become the poster child for holiday creep. Its Kmart division begins advertising before the back-to-school season even finishes. This year it acknowledged its role in pushing the holiday earlier and earlier into the calendar by creatively and humorously touting a not-a-Christmas holiday sales commercial.

But it's not alone in making every day seem like Christmas. Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) is also guilty of starting sales earlier and earlier. This year it doubled the number of sales available over the Halloween weekend and rolled back prices even more than it did before. It was selling a 40-inch LCD television for $199 on Nov. 1 and while it had a 60-inch flat-screen TV that went for $488 on Black Friday last year, this year it had a 65-inch smart TV sell for $465 this past weekend.

J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP) was reportedly cutting prices in half on certain items early in November.

Images

It often seems that it's not so much what you buy, just that you do so. Photo: Flickr via John Henderson.

So it's not so much that people aren't shopping as much as they were, just that they aren't confined to sales on Black Friday.

Last year stores freaked out because a quirk in the calendar caused there to be six fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. This year there's one more day than in 2013 and the calendar will continue to normalize going forward, but retailers are still jittery.

That's why we saw them continue opening their doors on Thanksgiving Day itself even as a backlash grows about the practice. Yet that's another reason why Black Friday is not as important as it once was. There are just so many chances for shoppers to get a deal on days other than Black Friday. J.C. Penney extended its "Cyber Week" sales through Dec. 3.

The National Retail Federation said Black Friday still saw the most shoppers of any day during the weekend, or 86.9 million people, both in stores and online. But when you've got Thanksgiving Day, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, it's not as imperative to wait for a Black Friday special.

The U.S. economy was just revised upward by the Bureau of Economic Analysis to show a 3.9% expansion in the third quarter, up from its initial estimate of 3.5%. Gasoline prices have plunged sharply with the average price of a gallon of gas now at $2.78. That's $0.04 per gallon lower than a week ago and almost $0.50 less than last year.

But consumers aren't necessarily putting the extra money they're realizing into Christmas gifts. After all, the gas savings are being offset by higher prices in the grocery store.

The Christmas season will still be the most important for retailers, but Black Friday will continue to see its role as barometer on how well the season progresses diminish. Shoppers haven't necessarily gone away, they've just started earlier and expect better prices. And that could impact the bottom line of retailers everywhere.

Follow Rich Duprey's coverage of all the retailing industry's most important news and developments. He owns shares of J.C. Penney Company. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.