Surprise! The holiday shopping season is already underway. That and more top money stories you need to know Friday. website

No need to wait for Black Friday to start your holiday shopping. Walmart (WMT) kicks off its online deals Friday, nearly a month earlier than usual. It’s partly because retailers are worried that sales could be pretty tame this year, and partly because Thanksgiving comes very late this year, leaving fewer shopping days between Black Friday and Christmas.

Good news for millions of workers who use flexible spending accounts to help pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses. The IRS is getting rid of its “use-it-or-lose-it” policy. Starting next year, you’ll be able to carry over up to $500 of unused money into the following year. Employees are allowed to contribute up to $2,500 into these tax-deferred accounts each year. But up until now, you’d forfeit any money not used that year.

Halloween was only a little bit spooky for investors. The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 73 points Thursday, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index (^GPSC) lost 6 and the Nasdaq composite index (^IXIC) dropped 11 points. But for all of the often-haunted month of October, the Dow jumped nearly 3 percent in October, and the S&P rallied 4.5 percent.

Shares of General Motors (GM) and Ford (F) could be on the move today, as automakers report sales for October. expects both GM and Ford to post double-digit gains. That means the government shutdown did little to slow down demand.

Shares of First Solar are set to shine after the company’s earnings more than doubled, charging past expectations. The company’s stock has also doubled from a year ago.

Finally, everyone is all a-twitter over Twitter’s IPO next week, but there’s another initial public offering Friday that could grab a lot of attention. The Container Store priced its IPO at $18 a share. That’s at the high-end of expectations. The retailer of storage and organization systems plans to expand from just 62 stores now to about 300 over the next few years. The company has made Fortune’s list of “Best Companies to Work For” for 14 straight years.


The biggest controversy of the holiday season so far was the latest extension of "Christmas Creep": Many retailers began their Black Friday sales as early as 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving. But for all the talk about how that violated the sanctity of the national holiday, customers seem to have responded favorably to the early openings. According to data from the National Retail Federation, more than 35 million Americans shopped online or in stores on Thursday, up from 29 million last year.

While much of that increase surely came from an increase in Thansgiving sales online, the survey also found that 28% of weekend shoppers were in a physical store by midnight on Black Friday, up from 24.4% last year. Perhaps most tellingly, in-store sales on Black Friday itself were down 1.8% versus last year, in all likelihood because so many shoppers made their purchases on Thursday. As we noted in our Black Friday liveblog, Thanksgiving shopping is here to stay.

1. Customers embraced Thanksgiving Day shopping.

While most people lined up on Thursday night were there for the big electronics deals, TVs and gadgets weren’t the most popular category for shoppers this weekend. Pam Goodfellow of BIGinsight, which conducts surveys for the NRF, said that apparel was the most popular category among those who said they shopped this week, with 58% buying clothes; by comparison, just 38% bought consumer electronics.

Clothing outpaced electronics last year as well, so the result isn’t entirely shocking. But fashion’s margin of victory was more decisive this year: Last year, 51% of shoppers bought clothes, compared with 39% who bought electronics.

Finally, she notes a shift in where those customers bought their apparel.

"Clothing and accessory specialty stores were up," she says. "It’s not all about the big discounters."

2. Clothes were more popular than electronics.

Best Buy hasn’t been a darling of Wall Street lately, to say the least. But in the wake of its dismal third-quarter earnings, the electronics retailer actually had a solid showing this weekend, especially online. According to Experian, traffic to more than doubled on Thanksgiving versus the previous day, the highest day-over-day growth of any online retailer. And it also saw the biggest one-day gain in the use of its mobile shopping app on Black Friday.

Of course, pessimists would say that this only shows that Best Buy can compete when it offers major discounts — discounts that can’t be sustained year-round. But there’s no denying that it had a good weekend.

3. Best Buy cleaned up.

As we said, no one was surprised to see that online sales were once again fantastic. But the actual growth on Cyber Monday in particular exceeded expectations. According to IBM, Cyber Monday sales increased 30% over last year, well above the 18% increase projected by Adobe Systems earlier this month. That’s especially notable given that online sales started as early as Thursday, which had the potential to steal some sales from Monday itself.

It’s unclear whether this means that online sales will beat expectations for the whole season, or if online shopping has simply shifted earlier and will be comparatively weak in December.

In an interview conducted before the final results became available, Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru said that a slightly better-than-expected sales increase on Cyber Monday would likely mean "a slowdown in early December." However, she added that a Cyber Monday sales increase north of 30% would probably bode very well for the online retail sector this holiday season.

[UPDATE: Mulpuru cites alternative figures from Chase Paymentech showing a more modest (but still impressive) 22% sales increase on Cyber Monday. She notes that the IBM numbers are weighted toward soft goods and apparel, which suggests that apparel will have a strong season while hard goods may suffer a bit of a hangover in December.]

4. Cyber Monday was better than predicted.

NBG analyst Brian Sozzi points to IBM data showing that average transaction size on Cyber Monday was a paltry $130.30, down from close to $200 on Cyber Monday 2011.

"Retailers have done a fine job at shifting the pool of holiday buyers to earlier in the season, but [have] not necessarily created demand outside of the carefully scrutinized shopping list," he writes in a note. "Moreover, these sales are being done with sharp promos, so one really has to be concerned with the profit trajectory of many retailers."

That lower ticket size is partly a function of more people buying lower-priced digital goods like music and movies, according to Reuters. But it also suggests that people were shopping early to get great deals on shopping list items they were going to buy anyway, which might not bode well for retailers for the rest of the season.

5. Individual purchases were smaller.

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