(MCT) — LOS ANGELES — Drawn by aggressive discounts and earlier-than-ever opening hours, shoppers opened their wallets on Black Friday weekend in record numbers and handed retailers a promising start to the holiday season.
Merchants raked in an estimated $59.1 billion in sales from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday, up from $52.4 billion a year earlier, as millions flocked to stores and browsed online, according to the National Retail Federation. Spending per shopper jumped 6 percent to $423.
The spending mania is expected to continue into so-called Cyber Monday, which is the first workday after the holiday weekend, when many indulge in online shopping while at work.
“Everyone is feeling very bullish,” said Matthew Shay, chief executive of the National Retail Federation. “We are really seeing a five-day weekend that started on Thursday and ends on Monday. The entire week is really getting extended with special promotions that roll out in waves.”
Huge retailers and small boutiques alike tried to get a jump on the competition by opening as early as 8 p.m. Thanksgiving. That appears to have paid off, attracting first-time Black Friday bargain hunters with extended hours.
Nearly 30 percent of consumers who went out shopping over the long weekend were in stores by midnight Thanksgiving, the industry trade group said. More young shoppers — about 40 percent of those ages 18 and 34 — indulged in late-night shopping compared with 25 percent of people ages 35 to 54.
The retail group said a record 247 million shoppers visited stores and websites over the weekend, up from 226 million a year earlier.
The earlier door-buster deals pulled sales into Thanksgiving Day that would typically have occurred the next morning, said Bill Martin of research firm ShopperTrak. He said sales Friday dropped 1.8 percent to $11.2 billion as Thanksgiving purchases probably rose.
Analysts said the results bolster previous forecasts of a good-but-not-great holiday season.
“There was definitely more hype this year for Black Friday, and the shoppers came out in droves,” said James Rushing, a partner at consulting firm A.T. Kearney.
One positive sign: Merchants over the weekend were trimming the number of deep discounts — such as 75 percent to 80 percent off — that dotted the malls so thickly in the last few years, Rushing said.
“Retailers are feeling more confident about consumer sentiment,” he said. “They were more focused on making a profit” rather than just making the sale, which “has potential to lead to a stronger fourth quarter.”
But industry watchers warn that Black Friday isn’t always a good holiday-season predictor. There is still concern about a looming “fiscal cliff,” when tax hikes and spending cuts go into effect at the first of the year, which could cause shoppers to shut their wallets.
“The economic concern is still out there as are the political concerns,” Shay said. “For that reason people are more prepared this holiday season to spend what they got and look for value, because of what might happen next year.”
Vivian Nguyen, 26, of Los Angeles said she’s planning to drop about $300 on gifts for family members and friends for the holidays. The online marketer said she’s still watching her spending carefully, treating herself to only a pair of socks at a neighborhood boutique while shopping over the weekend.
“I’m looking entirely for sales,” Nguyen said. “I really expect them at this point during the year.”
For now, many shoppers appeared to take a more relaxed approach to holiday spending, analysts said.
“It was quite apparent this year the self-gifting process during Black Friday was on the rise,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group. He estimates at least a quarter of shoppers treated themselves to a present over the weekend.
Retailers are set to launch fresh discounts on their websites Monday, when an estimated 129.2 million people will go shopping online. Hundreds of retailers are expected to offer one-day-only bargains and free shipping to lure people back after days of stuffing themselves with turkey and pie.