NEW YORK — Black Friday was no match for Sandy.
Major retailers such as Kohl's, Target and Macy's on Thursday reported weak sales in November as a strong start to the holiday shopping season on the day after Thanksgiving wasn't enough to fully offset a slow start to the month caused by Superstorm Sandy.
The storm stunted enthusiasm among shoppers early in the month just as stores were preparing for the busiest shopping period of the year, a roughly two-month stretch in November through December when they can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue.
"It really took away the punchbowl for retailers and put them behind the eight ball heading into the crucial weekend," said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics, a research firm
Eighteen retailers reported that November sales at stores open at least a year — an indicator of a retailer's health — through last Saturday were up 1.7 percent compared with the year-ago period, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That's well below the group's anticipated forecast for a 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent gain.
Only a small group of stores representing about 13 percent of the $2.4 trillion U.S. retail industry report monthly revenue, and the list excludes big merchants such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's biggest retailer. But the data still offers a snapshot of consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of all economic activity.
November sales show that stores were challenged by the impact of Sandy, which hit the Northeast on Oct. 29 and disrupted business activity and households for several days. MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse, which tracks spending across all payments, including cash, said that Sandy knocked off nearly $4 billion of retail sales the first week in November in the hard-hit Mid-Atlantic and Northeast region, which accounts for 24 percent of retail sales nationwide.
The disappointing November sales releases dampen the enthusiasm fueled after reports of strong spending over the Thanksgiving weekend, the official kickoff to the holiday shopping season.
A record 247 million shoppers visited stores and websites over the four-day weekend that started on Thanksgiving this year, up 9.2 percent of last year, according to a survey of 4,000 shoppers that was conducted by research firm BIGinsight for The National Retail Federation trade group. The number of people who shopped on Thanksgiving rose 23.1 percent, while the number who shopped on the day after grew 3.1 percent. Total spending over the four-day weekend totaled $59.1 billion, up 12.8 percent from 2011.
November sales affirm that this holiday season could be a difficult one for stores even as Americans' confidence is at the highest level since February 2008. The retail federation estimates that overall sales in November and December will rise 4.1 percent this year to $586.1 billion. But that's more than a percentage point lower than the growth in each of the past two years, and the smallest increase since 2009, when sales were nearly flat.
Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers trade group, said he's still sticking with his forecast for a 3 percent increase for holiday season. Originally, Niemira had expected November would be stronger than December, but now he anticipates the trend will be flipped.