Call it a wash.  The biggest retail day of the year managed to match up against the sales figures from last year, eking out a 0.5% increase — perhaps not even enough to cover what little inflation may have occurred over the past year.  Retailers took in $10.66 billion on Friday, but the news reports leave out an important question:

Shoppers who endured long lines and sometimes-frigid temperatures spent only slightly more during their Black Friday shopping sprees than they did last year, according to data released Saturday by a research firm.

At the same time, their pajama-clad counterparts, a much smaller group that accounted for only a fraction of overall sales, shopped online from the warmth of their homes and dramatically boosted their spending. …

Preliminary sales data from Martin’s organization, a Chicago research firm that tracks sales at more than 50,000 stores, showed shoppers spent $10.66 billion when they hit the malls on the day after Thanksgiving. That’s only 0.5 percent more than last year when Black Friday sales rose a striking 3 percent.

The problem with using retail sales as a calculation is the same as using topline figures for a business to determine its health.  Sales numbers are important, but we’re missing a critical piece — the cost of the sales.  After all, anyone can sell a lot of merchandise if they’re willing to do it at a loss.

The AP mentions that retailers had to deeply discount early and often to bait shoppers:

Stores offerred deals on more practical items to woo recession-weary shoppers who more than ever might want gifts that the recipients will really appreciate.

Translation: Discounts moved from traditional low-margin seasonal gift ideas to staples, where retailers usually hope to recoup their bottom lines.  That could be very bad news; as Ashley Heher notes, last year’s 3% Black Friday increase heralded a 4.4% drop in the overall holiday shopping season, topline.  If retailers bought a 0.5% increase through deeper discounts, the margin on those sales will be thinner, and they may have pulled some future sales into Black Friday as a result.

The good news is that consumers who have jobs are willing to shop for the right deals.  Even with that, though, shoppers are less enthusiastic now than a year ago, when the economy was crashing and panic was starting to appear but retailers still got a 3% improvement on Black Friday from 2007.  One might have thought that, with all of the “All is well!” rhetoric, that shoppers may have felt more comfortable expanding their buying, but apparently not.  Even when they are willing to buy, they are not willing to shop at normal retail prices, and bargain-hunting now may mean fewer sales later.  If retailers had hoped to get healthy on Black Friday, they may find themselves in for a very disappointing Christmas.