Black Friday marks not only the beginning of the biggest shopping period of the year, but also a crucial economic indicator into consumer sentiment.
U.S. households are expected to spend an average of $384 on Christmas gifts this holiday season, according to a survey by the Conference Board released Tuesday. This figure, based on a sample of 5,000 households, is slightly less than last year's estimate of $390 per household.
Financial analysts often find these figures inconclusive when they are trying to gauge the strength of the economic recovery.
"We try to leave as little to chance as possible," said Bill Strazzullo, partner and chief marketing strategist with Bell Curve Trading. "I'm not a big advocate for using these signs for investment decisions."
Though Strazzullo does not rely on consumer sentiment in his equity research, he said economists will glance at a range of data to help make decisions.
Analysts suggested these seven categories may give clues about the health of the economy:
In 2009, total gaming revenues declined for the second consecutive year to $30.74 billion, down 5.5 percent from 2008, according to the American Gaming Association.
While this may seem like negative news for the economy, as consumers want to save rather than chance away their money, Michael Pollock, managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group, said gambling is a lagging economic indicator.
"When people gamble, it has to be a function of discretionary income and the wealth effect," Pollock said. "So after people's homes values diminish and their stock portfolios shrink, they spend less on gambling."
Pollock said it may take as long as two years for the gambling industry to pick up again, if the economy is currently improving.
Chocolate can be a quintessential comfort food, sales of which could increase during a downturn. The Hershey Company projected full-year sales to increase 7 percent. But Doug Hart, partner in the retail and consumer product practice at BDO USA, also said people tend to like chocolate no matter what the circumstances.
"Chocolate sales have tended to be recession-proof, so even as consumers need to close their wallets, they don't seem to scrimp on finding moderate, inexpensive ways to treat themselves," said Hart. Hart emphasized that high-end chocolate from Swiss chocolate makers is especially recession proof.
3. Fashion Accessories
In an economic slump, Hart said, there is higher demand and supply of fashion accessories, which have a lower price point than clothing.
"In the beginning of 2009, retailers were beginning to allocate more of their merchandise assortment to lower-point accessories," which coincided closely with the economic downturn, Hart said.
He said that during the worst months of the recession, retailers promoted accessories such as belts, scarves and bracelets.
"Even though it's a recession, consumers still wanted to buy something to dress up their existing outfits," said Hart.
If you assess the economy based on fashion accessories, Hart said, this year is looking more positive. Hart said the overall accessory category was "very strong" for the first quarter of this year.
Hart also said his firm conducted a survey of the chief marketing officers of 100 of the largest retailers and there was a 2.8 percent increase in holiday sales predictions over the previous year and still larger than 2008 levels.
4. Movie Theater Snacks