It wasn't so much Black Friday that had both retailers and consumers enthused as it was a Black Thanksgiving weekend.
Attracted by a whirlwind of deals and discounts, holiday shoppers turned out in force at stores and websites from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday and spent more than they did last year on gifts and bought more items for themselves.
"What we saw was a nice start to the holiday season. Where there were deals and door-busters, consumers were very responsive," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, a market research firm.
"A good holiday season is going to jumpstart the economy," he said. "Without a good holiday season, manufacturers and retailers go into conservative mode. That doesn't drive growth."
Altogether, shoppers spent an estimated $45 billion during the four-day weekend, up from $41.2 billion last year. About 212 million shoppers visited stores and websites, up from 195 million last year, the National Retail Federation said Sunday.
The higher numbers came on top of strong sales through the first half of November as shoppers took advantage of earlier-than-ever deals offered by retailers in stores and online. To keep the momentum going, many retailers opened on Thanksgiving Day and rolled out fresh discounts throughout the weekend.
As a result, Black Friday itself — a day when huge business typically helped retailers turn profitable for the year — seemed to be overshadowed, with in-store sales edging up only 0.3%, according to ShopperTrak, a research firm that installs tracking devices in stores around the country.
The National Retail Federation also said Black Friday looked pretty flat, with big gains on Thanksgiving Day, when 22.3 million shoppers hit stores and websites, and on Saturday.
Unlike previous years, when relatively modest Black Friday numbers signaled weak consumer spending, this year's results suggested that many shoppers simply hit the malls well before the weekend, which may have thinned Black Friday business, ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin said.
That meant some unexpected strength in early November: Sales and traffic for the first two weeks increased 6.1% and 6.2%, respectively, over the same two weeks last year, he said.
"The early weeks in November were really strong, so the fact we still had an increase on Black Friday, I think that sets us up for a pretty good holiday season," he said.
Online shopping was the big winner Friday, according to data from several research groups. And retailers were gearing up for what is expected to be another big day: Cyber Monday, when millions of shoppers visit retail websites for one-day-only deals.
Internet sales on Black Friday rose 15.9%, and consumers pushed the average order value to $190.80 from $170.19, according to Coremetrics, an IBM Corp. company. The luxury category also performed well, it said.
"On Black Friday, consumers came, they clicked and they shopped their way across the Internet. And this time they weren't just looking for bargains," said John Squire, chief strategy officer at Coremetrics.
"Consequently, we're watching online retail — and increasingly social media and mobile — become the growth engines for retailers everywhere," he said.
PayPal, too, said its findings suggested that shoppers swarmed online for convenience and deals. The company reported a 27% increase in total payment volume and a 310% increase in mobile payment volume on Black Friday compared with the same day last year.
Both in stores and online, consumers increasingly snapped up discretionary items. The National Retail Federation said popular categories included gift cards, toys, books, electronic entertainment and jewelry.
In another good sign for retailers and the economy, NPD found that 33% of consumers bought for themselves on Black Friday. The market research firm also found that the number of shoppers who bought something was up 4% over last year.
"To see growth of 4% over the year before tells us two big things," Cohen said. "One is that those people that went to shop, bought. And two, is that the retailers did a better job of luring consumers in."
But many people are still feeling recession aftershocks, especially those who remain unemployed, said Laura Gurski, a partner in the retail practice at A.T. Kearney, a management consulting firm.
"I do think you'll see some of that pent-up demand released," she said. "The question is, how much of the discretionary spending from that pent-up demand can offset those who are unable to spend as much?"