More people hit the stores this Thanksgiving weekend than did last year, as big-box retailers opened their doors earlier than ever on Thursday.
Spending per shopper averaged $423 — $25 more than last year — from Thursday to Sunday, while total spending increased nearly 13 percent, to an estimated $59.1 billion, according to a survey the National Retail Federation released Sunday afternoon.
"I think the only way to describe the Thanksgiving openings is to call it a huge win," said Matthew Shay, the trade group's president and chief executive. Shopping, he said, "has really become an extension of the day's festivities."
About 35 million people visited stores and shopping websites Thursday, up from 29 million last year. More than double that number — 89 million, up from 86 million — shopped on Black Friday.
"There were more people shopping every single day of the weekend," Shay said. "Black Friday is a little bit different than historically, but it certainly is not dead."
But whether increased sales over the Thanksgiving weekend will translate to higher sales throughout the holiday shopping season remains to be seen. Analysts have been predicting mediocre sales this year, as shoppers remain uncertain about the broader economy. Overall holiday sales are expected to increase 4.1 percent from 2011, compared with sales growth of 5.6 percent last year, the National Retail Federation said. Overall holiday sales are projected to total about $586.1 billion. On average, Americans are expected to spend $749.51 this holiday season, up $9 from last year but still below 2006 figures.
In an effort to defy the stingy projections, some retailers opened at 8 p.m. on Thursday, while others offered to match the prices of their online competitors. But some analysts have projected that retailers would only succeed in prompting customers to buy gifts earlier in the holiday season, rather than to spend more.
Most of the weekend's shoppers — roughly 58 percent — bought clothing and accessories, whereas 38 percent bought electronics and 35 percent shelled out for toys.
Much of the weekend's shopping took place online, as consumers logged on to take advantage of Internet-only specials beginning early Thursday morning. The average shopper spent more than $172 online this weekend, which made up approximately 41 percent of the total weekend spending. That is up from 38 percent last year.
"There is no question that online is a real bright spot in the retail industry," Shay said. "For the first time, more than half of those who shopped this weekend said they shopped online."
Online sales are slated to pick up even more, as many retailers kick off Cyber Monday sales a day or two early. Wal-Mart began offering online discounts on Saturday, and Amazon.com started on Sunday with plans to offer deep savings for Internet shoppers all week.