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Originally published Sunday, November 27, 2011 at 9:04 PM

Shoppers ring in holidays with bigger spending

The National Retail Federation said Sunday that spending on the first weekend of the holiday season surged 9.1 percent per shopper over last year. In all, 6.6 percent more shoppers visited stores on Black Friday weekend than last year.

The New York Times

By the numbers

$400: Holiday-weekend spending, per shopper

9.1 percent: Increase over last year's per-shopper spending

$52.4 billion: Total spending, Thursday through Sunday, online and in stores

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Spurred by aggressive promotions from retailers, U.S. consumers opened their wallets over the holiday weekend in a way they had not since before the recession, setting records in sales and traffic.

The National Retail Federation said Sunday that spending per shopper surged 9.1 percent over last year — the biggest increase since 2006 — to an average of almost $400 per customer. In all, 6.6 percent more shoppers visited stores on Black Friday weekend than last year.

Retailers are set to launch fresh discounts on their websites for Cyber Monday, the first day after the Thanksgiving weekend, when an estimated 122.8 million people will shop online. Hundreds of retailers are expected to offer bargains to lure people browsing online at work.

"American consumers have been taking a deep breath and making a decision that it's OK to go shopping again," despite high unemployment and other signs of caution, said Ellen Davis, vice president at the National Retail Federation.

In Seattle, one retail consultant said, "late Friday afternoon, we were walking around downtown, and the bags were full. People were buying."

Dick Outcalt, of the Seattle consultancy Outcalt & Johnson: Retail Strategists, added that the holiday shopping season likely is off to a strong start even more so locally than nationally because of a growing sentiment among consumers that the Northwest economy is on the mend — a belief buoyed by a string of good news at some of the area's largest corporations, including Boeing, Nordstrom and Amazon.

"Retailers in the Northwest are in shock. They didn't expect it to be this good," Outcalt said of Thanksgiving weekend. "Now will it carry over for the next four to five weeks? That's anyone's guess."

National numbers from ShopperTrak, a consumer-research service, reflected strong results, with in-store sales Friday rising by 6.6 percent over last year's Black Friday to $11.4 billion.

Although Black Friday doesn't always foretell how the entire holiday season will perform, the day clues retailers in on how consumers feel heading into the final weeks of the year.

The increased traffic was fueled in part by earlier opening hours from several big retailers including Best Buy, Macy's and Toys R Us, which gambled that people would stay up late to shop Thanksgiving night rather than waking early the next day.

"Those people out shopping early on Black Friday had money to spend and were excited about early openings," Davis said. "Midnight was the magical hour for Black Friday shoppers."

Yet there were signs that Friday's gains might not last. Analysts said traffic to stores seemed to abate through the weekend, suggesting the big kickoff to the holiday season might peter out over time. And shoppers were using credit cards in large numbers, mall owners and analysts said, signaling that consumers were willing to sacrifice savings more than last year, when they paid with cash more frequently.

"With consumers, it's emotional, so they might feel they need Christmas this year," said Margaret Taylor, vice president and senior credit officer in the corporate finance group at Moody's Investors Service. "They could be willing to take on more credit."

Retailers hardly objected. Total spending, including online sales, reached an estimated $52.4 billion Thursday through Sunday, the National Retail Federation said. About 35 percent of that was spent online, slightly higher than last year, the federation said.

Almost a quarter of Friday's shoppers were in stores by midnight Thursday, the federation found.

"Early Black Friday openings and Thanksgiving-night openings are simply to get a larger share of the customer's wallet," Davis said, adding that research showed that customers tend to spend more at their first stop than at subsequent ones.

The midnight openings may have contributed to the unusually high number of men who were hitting stores. More men than women shopped throughout the weekend, and they spent more per person, according to the retail federation.

"Men really aren't willing to pull themselves out of bed at 4 a.m. for a bargain, but they will go" late at night, Davis said. "Men are increasingly budget-focused, and like the idea of looking for good deals."

After scrimping the past year because of worries about the economy, Michael Garcia, 34, dropped more than $300 on clothes for himself and kitchen items for his parents at the Grove shopping center in Los Angeles' Fairfax district Sunday. He boosted his holiday budget to $1,500 from $1,000 last year.

"You get to a certain point where you're just tired of watching every penny," said the information-technology worker from Los Angeles. "I'm feeling more confident this year about my job, and that means I'll be spending more."

Stores selling to people of different income levels chose different tactics on Friday, with many of the low- and middle-income retailers opening early with "door-buster" discounts, and the luxury stores moving back their opening times by just an hour or two.

Still, Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak, said sales "were pretty good across all manner of retailers."

Seattle Times reporter Amy Martinez contributed.

Information from the Los Angeles Times is included.

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