Bargain-hungry consumers gave the nation's retailers a much-needed early holiday boost with surprisingly healthy sales on Black Friday that tapered off Saturday and Sunday.
"It was a retail manager's dream," said Marissa Marks, store manager at the Beverly Center's L'Occitane boutique, which saw Black Friday sales double to $4,000 from last year. But, she added Sunday, "yesterday and today are not so good."
Analysts and retailers alike noted packed shopping centers and larger-than-expected crowds.
Nationwide, more than 172 million shoppers visited stores and websites over the four-day weekend, up from 147 million last year, the National Retail Federation said Sunday.
More deals come today as online merchants roll out Web-only specials and free shipping offers on what they call Cyber Monday.
But analysts expressed doubts that a healthy Black Friday signaled a turnaround for the nation's beleaguered retailers. Many called it a one-time wonder, a bright note in what is expected to be one of the bleakest holiday shopping seasons in decades.
"In the past, if you did well on Black Friday, the retailer knew they would do well the rest of the season," said Jackie Fernandez, a retail partner at Deloitte & Touche. "I don't think that is the same kind of comparison this year."
Desperate for a strong day of sales, retailers took no chances on Black Friday and opened their stores earlier, slashed prices even further and offered discounts on entire purchases. And that was after weeks of already steep promotions designed to attract wary shoppers.
Day-after-Thanksgiving retail sales alone rose 3% over last year to $10.6 billion, according to early figures released by ShopperTrak RCT Corp., which monitors sales at more than 50,000 stores.
Another tracking firm, ComScore, said online retail sales rose 1% on Black Friday to $534 million compared with 2007.
Even as they shopped for toys and TVs, consumers continued to watch their wallets.
"Though retailers should be encouraged by strong traffic and sales over the weekend, consumers are still being cautious," said Phil Rist, executive vice president of strategic initiatives for BIGresearch, which conducted the National Retail Federation's survey. "Weekend shoppers indicated that they are still sticking to a budget and thinking carefully before making any holiday purchases."
For Maricel Cruz, a teacher from Rosemead, the weak economy meant cutting her holiday budget by hundreds of dollars. And, for the first time, she bought most of her gifts from Wal-Mart.
"Normally we spend well over a thousand, more like two thousand," Cruz, 40, said while loading up on gifts at a Wal-Mart in Rosemead on Friday. "But everything in there is so cheap, which is why we finally came here to do our shopping."
Among the weekend's top sellers: clothing and accessories; books, DVDs, CDs and video games; consumer electronics; and toys.
Despite being the most-requested present, gift card purchasing dropped 10%, with about 1 in 5 shoppers buying a gift card over the weekend, the National Retail Federation said. With a wave of retail bankruptcies expected early next year, consumers may be worried about buying gift cards from stores that might not be around for much longer, experts said.
Major retailers are slated to release November sales results Thursday.
Although analysts have questioned the profitability of so many discounts, retailers have signaled that the huge markdowns won't end soon.
John Braeger, vice president of Garys Cos., which operates a handful of upscale retail stores in Southern California, said the Gary shops had offered more coupons and markdowns lately to lure shoppers.
"It's been somewhat challenging so far this season," he said. "We've had to discount a little more than typical, just to be competitive in today's market with everything going on."
Even though Black Friday is over, Braeger said the stores would continue to do "whatever we need to do to get people in."
Times staff writer Nathan Olivarez-Giles contributed to this report.