More Americans hunted for bargains over the weekend than ever before as retailers lured them online and into stores with big discounts and an earlier-than-usual start to the holiday shopping season.
A record 226 million shoppers visited stores and websites during the four-day holiday weekend starting on Thanksgiving Day, up from 212 million last year, according to early estimates by The National Retail Federation released on Sunday. Americans spent more, too: The average holiday shopper spent $398.62 over the weekend, up from $365.34 a year ago.
Art and Anna Destrada from Port Chester, N. Y., were among the holiday shoppers. They started shopping on Thanksgiving evening at a Walmart store, went to various malls in New Jersey on Friday, and got some deals at Macy's on Saturday. They spent a total of $2,000 on gifts for themselves and others, including a Wii videogame console, clothing and jewelry.
"We've saved for Christmas and put away money all year," says Anna Destrada, 49. "We stayed within our means so we can make a few splurges."
The results for the first holiday shopping weekend show that retailers' efforts to lure shoppers during the weak economy are working. Some like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and J.C. Penney have been making a stronger push online to better compete with the likes of rival Amazon.com. And major chains like Macy's, Target, Best Buy extended the traditional start to the shopping season by opening their doors at midnight on Thanksgiving evening instead of the pre-dawn Friday hours of years past.
But the question remains whether retailers' will be able to hold shoppers' attention throughout the remainder of the season, which can account for 25 to 40 percent of a merchant's annual revenue. After all, Americans are still very driven by deep discounting and they're more conscious of their spending budgets.
Overall, holiday spending is expected to grow by a modest 2.8 percent to about $466 billion, according to the NRF. A fuller picture on spending will come Thursday when major retailers report their November sales figures. But for now, experts agree that retailers will likely have to continue to discount to get shoppers to spend.
"The big question is: How do you close the season?" says Hana Ben-Shabat, a partner at A. T. Kearney's retail practice. "This is a very promotional driven shopper."
Indeed, the earlier hours – which meant earlier door-buster deals – on Black Friday seemed to be what drew many shoppers in over the weekend, particularly the younger crowd.
According to the National Retail Federation, 24 percent of Black Friday shoppers were at stores at midnight. That's up from 9.5 percent the year before when only a few stores were open during that time. Of those shopping at midnight on Black Friday, 37 percent were in the 18-to-34 age group.
"Black Friday has evolved from an early morning shopping activity to a late night entertainment," says Ellen Davis, spokeswoman at The National Retail Federation. "A lot of people stayed up until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. to go shopping, and then went to bed."
The remainder of the day went well, too.
Mall of America, the nation's largest mall, broke its Black Friday record with about 210,000 shoppers. And Taubman Centers, which manages or leases 26 shopping centers in 13 states, says sales were up anywhere from mid- to low double digits on Friday, compared with a year ago.
Overall, Black Friday sales were $11.4 billion, up 7 percent, or nearly $1 billion from the same day last year, according to a report by ShopperTrak, which gathers data from 25,000 outlets across the country. It was the largest amount ever spent on that day and the biggest year-over-year increase since 2007. Additionally, customer counts climbed 5.1 percent that day compared with a year ago.
Online shopping on Black Friday was especially strong. Research firm comScore reported on Sunday that online spending jumped 26 percent on Black Friday to $816 million, compared with $648 million on the same day a year ago.
Some experts worry the strong start will cannibalize sales during the remainder of the season. Indeed, many people who headed to the malls after Black Friday weren't spending.
At the Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, N.C., it was busy on Saturday, but many shoppers did not have bags. Likewise, at Pioneer Place mall in Portland, Ore., on Saturday, a number of shoppers were doing more window-shopping for the best deals than actual buying.
David Van Veen, 25, for one, says he was looking for deals on work clothes. But he says he'll likely wait to get gifts and other holiday items – perhaps when the deals are better – later in the season.
"I'll wait until Dec. 23 to start shopping I think," he says.
____Retailer Writers Christina Rexrode in Raleigh, N.C., and Sarah Skidmore in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.