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Roll your eyes, but Black Friday's still got it. So here's what to look for

A shopper pushes two carts during last year's Black Friday sale at a Best Buy store in Overland Park, Kan.
Charlie Riedel
/
AP
A shopper pushes two carts during last year's Black Friday sale at a Best Buy store in Overland Park, Kan.

Is Black Friday dead? Despite this annual speculation, the Friday that historically marks the start of the holiday shopping season remains, in fact, the busiest day for U.S. stores.

Yes, most U.S. shoppers tend to say Black Friday is overhyped. But nearly 1 in 5 Americans still plan to do "most of their shopping" on Black Friday, according to a survey by the accounting and consulting firm PwC.

This year, it might not be the best of deals, nor the worst of deals — but the holiday season is expected to set yet another shopping record. The National Retail Federation estimates that 182 million people plan to shop during this long weekend, which is the most since the group began tracking in 2017.

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Deal-hunting millennials are fueling some of the Black Friday flame.

People in their late 20s to early 40s are expected to account for over 40% of spending between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And in a throwback to analog times, half of these shoppers actually said they planned to chase doorbusters, telling a Deloitte survey that they were considering shopping trips between midnight and 7 a.m.

Holiday budgets of nearly $900 — a bill to tackle next year

Shoppers are expected to spend slightly more than last year — an average of $875 — on holiday stuff. People say they plan to allocate a bit more to gifts this year, and about the same amount to decorations, candy and snacks.

The National Retail Federation predicts overall spending will grow between 3% and 4% this holiday season. That's a slowdown from the pandemic boom, but in line with the decade prior. And the total is on track to top $957 billion, which would set a record.

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How can we afford it all?

Americans' credit card balances have recently grown to a record $1.08 trillion, a nearly 5% jump. And more cardholders are falling behind on their credit card bills, especially people in their 30s. Katie Thomas of the Kearney Consumer Institute described this as "the biggest risk" for the holiday season.

"But that's, I think, going to be a new-year problem," says Thomas, who leads the think tank within a consulting firm. "People are going to spend through the holiday season and then they're going to have to figure that out in 2024."

Gift cards for you, a self-gift for me

In surveys, people say this year they are prioritizing gifts for their closest relatives and themselves, making self-gifting a big theme this year. A record 28% of shoppers plan to buy makeup, beauty and other personal care items, according to the National Retail Federation's survey.

And if you ask people what they actually want to get as holiday presents? The answer, forever and always, is gift cards.

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Clothes are expected to remain the top-selling category during the Black Friday weekend, according to the National Retail Federation, followed by gift cards and toys. The retailers' survey says the most popular choices include Lego bricks, Hot Wheels and cars, Barbie and other dolls.

Adobe Analytics, which tracks online prices, estimates that Friday might have the best discounts on TVs, Saturday on computers, Sunday on toys and clothes, Monday on electronics and furniture, Tuesday on appliances and next Wednesday on sporting goods.

The bad news/good news economy

Americans enter the holiday shopping season feeling stretched and focused on discounts. Families have restarted student loan payments, child care subsidies have faded, and people are paying more for food and rent than they were a year ago.

But unemployment has remained at or near historic lows for months now. It was 3.9% in October. Wages have been climbing. And while prices remain high, inflation has cooled dramatically. And so, retailers are expecting the vast majority of U.S. shoppers to splurge for the holidays.

"Ultimately, people will still spend," says Thomas. "People like to spend on the holidays [and] they know it's the best price of the year."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Alina Selyukh
Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she covers retail, low-wage work, big brands and other aspects of the consumer economy. Her work has been recognized by the Gracie Awards, the National Headliner Award and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.