Wendy Liebmann, WSL Strategic Retail’s Founder and CEO, gives several plausible reasons why retailers shouldn’t be so surprised with the less-than-stellar Black Friday sales performance reported by the National Retail Federation, which said total sales for the Thanksgiving holiday period fell 11%.

Here we are a few weeks before Christmas and it feels as if the bottom has dropped out of the holiday shopping season. Reported Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales have been less than stellar — in some cases, really worrisome. So much so that retailers are openly challenging the validity of the numbers delivered by the National Retail Federation and other data sources.

Why are they surprised? The season began way before Thanksgiving weekend. In mid-October, retailer after retailer inundated shoppers with offers galore. The big guys, including Amazon, Walmart, Target and Macy’s to name a few, aggressively pushed out deals on the usual holiday items. Many retailers touted free holiday shipping for online purchases even before Halloween hit the stores. In early November, I spent time in malls and on Main Streets in Florida, New Jersey, New York, where there were already sale signs galore: 25% off was the opening deal at Macy’s. There were 60%-off signs at Neiman Marcus no less. Mailboxes, virtual and physical, have been filled to the brim with offers from everyone – I mean everyone — for at least a month. Then came Thanksgiving weekend and the disappointing sales and traffic numbers.

The simple solution to all this retail angst could be to stop focusing on Thanksgiving weekend and Cyber Monday sales and measure the “real” season. However, that’s only a timing issue. There’s something much more going on here beyond this data battle. It’s that the holiday shopping season and shoppers have fundamentally changed. There’s retail transformation in the works and it’s never been more evident.

Digital Shopping Grows And Steals Share

Mobile shopping is the big news this season (so far). More people are buying from their phones and tablets than in previous years. That was one reason beyond earlier deals for the slowdown on Cyber Monday. No need to wait to get back to the office to buy from the work computer when you can shop from the palm of your hand. Mobile accessibility means more shoppers have access to digital information and are buying more than ever before because more Americans, regardless of income, ethnicity, etc., have a smart phone.

We are finally seeing the power of digital transform shopping — not only how people buy, but when and where. In our How America Shops® research, shoppers have told us they are doing more pre-shopping (checking prices, getting information, comparing products) before they go to the store, and one-in-three consumers say when they do they don’t change their mind when they get to the store. So much for the impulse buy.

However, the really big news about digital and online shopping in general is that it’s taking a bigger share of the holiday shopping pie but the pie isn’t growing. Online shopping may still represent less than 10% of US retail sales but in some categories, including beauty, it is higher. For example, in our data, 14% of women now say they “mostly or always” buy fragrance online. This means fewer feet in the physical store, fewer impulse buys as more shoppers pre-shop and stick to their lists.

Discounting Runs Rampant, Innovation Disappears

If all shoppers see are sales signs, will they even consider buying at full or “reasonably” discounted prices this season or ever? No. What does it say for retailer or brand credibility in the year to come? Not much. Where’s the innovation? The temptation? Where will shoppers be tantalized to buy more, or new? If the season already feels commoditized and discounted who would blame shoppers for waiting for the lowest price, buying only what’s on their list and heading home to wait for January sales?

Discerning Shoppers Stick To Their Lists, Check Them Twice

Shoppers recognize the economy is better but are still feeling financially and psychologically pressured. All the talk about cheaper gas leaving shoppers with more to spend during the holidays is only half the story. While gas prices have declined, prices of everyday goods like food and groceries have increased. Which means there’s still not a lot more in the average American’s wallet. Even more affluent shoppers are looking for a deal.Case in point, Net-A-Porter’s sale site crashed last week because of traffic overload.

Retail Under [Re]Construction

Retail transformation is upon us. There’s clear evidence this holiday season. We have to face facts, recognize the threat is commoditization, that innovation is essential and that the same old fragrance gift sets won’t do, that digital can now enable every shopper and transform every shopping experience. And, last but definitely not least, shoppers remain circumspect, pragmatic and not easily tempted to overspend this Christmas or in the New Year. Are you prepared?