Stephen Foley: Retailers relax as shoppers return on Black Friday

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The Independent Online

US Outlook: If you are the head of a retail chain in the US, you'll have been talking for months now about the continuing cautious state of the consumer, the prudent approach you are taking to planning for the holiday season and your limited expectations for the coming, critical weeks of trading. Don't be fooled.

Below the surface, there is genuine optimism, and the anecdotal evidence from yesterday's "Black Friday" festival of consumerism is that the US shopper is indeed no longer a drag on the economy.

Last year's holiday season was the worst in the shops for 40 years, as consumers feared for their jobs and their savings at a time when it still looked as if the financial system could fail again. This time out, US retailers have been putting more money into advertising, and doing so further in advance of the season.

The discounts on offer this Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving when people traditionally hit the shops and which supposedly marks the point when retailers go into the black for the year – were smaller and more carefully targeted than the desperate price cuts of a year ago. To the extent that these things can be gauged, the crowds at malls and superstores were noticeably bigger yesterday than Black Friday 2008.

Because of the uncertain jobs market and the reduced availability of – and desire for – credit, households are rebuilding their savings. But after a year of relative frugality, it seems worth betting that there is pent-up demand for luxuries such as a new computer or television, and for restocking depleted wardrobes. A savings pause seems likely. After all, 'tis the season.