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The days leading up to Christmas are numbered, but with luck, imagination and wisdom gleaned from local galleries, it’s not too late to give s…

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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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Walmart will spotlight particularly healthy or sustainable products with a new "Built for Better" tag on its website, an attempt to entice shoppers who want to vote for better nutrition and environmental stewardship with their wallets.

The initiative will start with almost 2,000 items, the world's biggest retailer said Tuesday, and the number is set to grow. The goods will be grouped into two areas, those considered better for the customer's health and those deemed good for the planet.

Consumer companies from retail giants to PepsiCo are rushing to satisfy customers who are rethinking the impact of their spending in ways they didn't before. For Walmart, that means acknowledging that its famous formula of everyday low prices isn't enough for a growing number of shoppers.

"Customers have always trusted us for our low prices, but today they also want to know that the products they buy are good for their families, the people that made them and the planet," Jane Ewing, Walmart's senior vice president of sustainability, said in a blog post. "For many of our customers, living better means shopping intentionally and prioritizing brands and products that align with the things that matter to them."

A "Built for Better -- For You" tag will highlight more nutritious goods or products that are made without particular materials or ingredients. The "Built for Better -- For the Planet" icons will be for items "with a focus on sustainably sourced and climate-conscious products."

Customers can learn more about the criteria for selecting such goods in a methodology page on Walmart's website.

The initiative is part of Walmart's drive to become a "regenerative company," Ewing said. That means putting human and environmental well-being at the center of the company's business practices, she said.

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