As discouraging news about the COVID-19 pandemic continued to capture headlines, traffic to stores on Super Saturday — the last Saturday before Christmas Day — was up 19.4% compared to last year but down 26.3% compared to 2019, according to research from retail analytics platform Sensormatic Solutions.
By contrast, Black Friday traffic declined 28.3% compared to 2019, but was up 47.5% compared to 2020, the firm found. Typically, Super Saturday ranks second to Black Friday in the holiday shopping season, according to Sensormatic's report, released Monday.
Reports of rising COVID-19 cases "had a significant effect" on Super Saturday traffic, according to footfall analytics firm Placer.ai. Visits declined at many retailers, including mass merchants, department stores and off-pricers, and the gaps were bigger than those seen on Black Friday, the firm said.
Despite inflation worries and the ongoing pandemic, consumers have been mostly upbeat, sending retail sales up strongly in the past three months.
Widely available vaccinations in the U.S. and low unemployment numbers have mitigated those concerns, giving retailers hope for a robust holiday season. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell last week predicted "personal consumption expenditures to be pretty strong in the fourth quarter," noting that "fundamentally ... the consumer is really healthy."
Consumer confidence also rose in December, "following a very modest gain in November," the Conference Board reported on Wednesday. But Powell, the Conference Board and some analysts also warned that the pandemic poses a risk to the outlook.
According to the CDC, the U.S. recently surpassed 50 million COVID-19 cases and 800,000 deaths from COVID-19, with cases overwhelming many hospital intensive care units. The omicron variant, which first made headlines over Thanksgiving weekend, is now the dominant variant in the U.S., at 73% of cases, the CDC said. The public health agency this week also warned that holiday activities could accelerate the increases.
"Looking ahead to 2022, both confidence and consumer spending will continue to face headwinds from rising prices and an expected winter surge of the pandemic," Lynn Franco, senior director of economic indicators at The Conference Board, said in a statement.
Holiday shopping got a strong start at most retailers, "with momentum either continuing or even accelerating from October into November as inventories flowed in," MKM Partners analysts led by Roxanne Meyer said in emailed comments Tuesday. Consumers' awareness of supply chain issues likely led many to buy early, which could also spell trouble for some retailers as the holidays wind down, those analysts said.
And the omicron variant's spread "has the potential to deter last-minute shoppers," they also said. That could lead to a surge in gift card sales, which won't be recorded at retailers until they're cashed in, according to the MKM report.