We pen this posting in the middle of Cyber Monday and already, reports of both physical and online holiday sales levels for the all-important Thanksgiving and Black Friday weekend are confusing. However, one conclusion is clearer, supply chain, online fulfillment and logistics teams need to be prepared for a wild ride in the following 4 weeks.

Today’s published edition of the Wall Street Journal headlined (paid subscription or free metered view) that holiday sales lagged despite the blitz of deals, reporting that weekend sales dropped for the first time in at least seven years. While retailers such as Best Buy, Macy’s, Target and Wal-Mart opened physical stores on the afternoon of the Thanksgiving holiday and aggressively promoted deals, preliminary sales estimates point to sales across both holiday days as not equivalent to previous years.  The WSJ opined how retailing has become a zero-sum game as sales growth comes at the expense of another retailer. It cites National Retail Federation (NRF) preliminary estimates that total spending over the Thanksgiving weekend fell to $57.4 billion, down 2.7 percent from a year ago. However, NRF forecasts total holiday through year-end to increase by 3.9 percent.

The fact that this weekend’s shopping activity spans an earlier promotional and shopping horizon seems to be either confusing media outlets or these outlets are in competition for the most click-through headlined content regarding holiday sales. Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Black Friday online spending increased a record 15 percent to a record $1.2 billion. It cites ComScore online data going back to November 1 as well as Thanksgiving and Black Friday holiday online sales. What the authors failed to qualify was that last year, the majority of retail outlets were not open for business during Thanksgiving, and thus comparisons to last year are exaggerated to state the least. In its reporting, the WSJ cited NRF data and noted: “ On Thanksgiving Day, 45 million people went shopping, up 27% from last year, but traffic on Friday increased only 3.5% to 92 million..”

Readers who were monitoring social media probably viewed the many ugly images of shoppers fighting at a Wal-Mart to secure a promoted television model, or other images of shoppers stampeding into stores and malls to secure their bargains.  One report we read indicated that Wal-Mart authorized its store managers, at their discretion, to announce hourly door busters, to add even more frenzy.

All of these reports and images should be of concern for sales and operations planning and supply chain teams planning supply and inventory resource requirements for the remainder of the month.  While many product promotions are planned well in advance and inventory availability is managed to a concerted plan, it would initially appear that two trends are occurring.

First, consumers are clearly price and bargain focused, and thus sales for the remaining days and weeks will be driven by aggressive pricing and sales tactics that drive loss leaders but at the same time capture consumer eyeballs for other products, both brick and mortar and online focused.  Second, as noted in our earlier commentary regarding what to expect, online sales activity may indeed peak later in the month, if it peaks at all.  That implies a extremely keen eye on real-time inventory sales and inventory management across all fulfillment channels and having daily conversations with your online and traditional sales and marketing team members as to the most up-to-date promotional and sales fulfillment activities. The more those conversations can be collaborative as to what has been planned and what to expect, the less firefighting and ultimate lost sales.

Now more than any other period during the year, near real-time analysis of operational fulfillment and inventory data will differentiate the winners for this year’s holiday buying surge. This will be the keen test of any or all demand sensing and supply chain response capabilities.

Bob Ferrari