NEW YORK (Reuters) - More Americans will be out shopping this year on Black Friday -- or at least that's how it looks from outer space.
Satellite images from Remote Sensing Metrics show more cars parked outside shopping malls across the country in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and increasingly crowded parking lots usually mean higher sales.
This year 35 percent of parking spaces have been filled since mid-September on average, compared with 31 to 32 percent the previous two years, according to the data analyzed by Thomson Reuters.
This past Saturday, the last before Black Friday, the figure had risen to 42.3 percent, compared with 36.5 percent in 2009 and 30.6 percent in 2008
"If that trend continues, it's pretty likely that we're going to see stronger traffic," said Thomson Reuters analyst Jharonne Martis-Olivo. "Inflation is flat, so we might have stronger retail sales."
Black Friday, which falls on November 26 this year, is a key date for retailers, representing the traditional post-Thanksgiving kickoff to the holiday shopping season.
Retailers from Macy's Inc to Best Buy Co Inc try to lure shoppers through "door-buster" discounts, but some prices could be higher this year on items such as groceries and luxury goods, Martis-Olivo said.
That should prevent a year like 2008, when traffic was high on Black Friday, but sales in dollar terms declined as the worst financial crisis in decades drove retailers to slash prices.
The Standard & Poor's Retail Index was up 2.6 percent on Wednesday afternoon, slightly higher than the wider S&P 500.
The Thomson Reuters data echo estimates from the National Retail Federation, which said nearly 60 million Americans plan to hit the stores over the weekend, while an additional 78 million might join the crowds of shoppers. The total number of possible shoppers is 4 million more than forecast last year.
Total retail same-store sales for the fourth quarter, which includes the holiday season, are expected to rise by 1.5 percent this year, up from an 0.6 percent increase in 2009, according to Thomson Reuters data.
By sector, some of the strongest same-store sales are forecast for discount chains, up 2 percent; footwear at 2.7 percent; jewelry at 3.5 percent; and home furnishings at 4.2 percent.
The NRF has forecast a 2.3 percent increase in sales this year for the November-December period, up from 0.4 percent for the same period in 2009.
The Thomson Reuters analysis was based on more than 500 satellite observations of car counts from Remote Sensing Metrics.
Reporting by Jon Lentz; editing by Michele Gershberg; Gerald E. McCormick and Andre Grenon