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Four Things Holiday-Shopping Kickoff Tell Us About the Economy, Consumer Habits

Retailers Are Nervous, But Consumers Are More Confident

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A record 247 million shoppers visited stores and websites over Black Friday weekend, up from 226 million last year, according to the National Retail Federation. The average shopper spent $423 this weekend, up from $398 last year, helping total spending reach an estimated $59.1 billion. Here, four things we've learned from the holiday-shopping kickoff:

Credit: AP

Retailers are nervous about the economy
U.S. retailers are extending deals to try to sustain a 13% gain in Thanksgiving weekend sales, even at the potential expense of December sales. The jump in total spending suggests that some sales were pulled ahead from December and that retailers will have to keep up the promotions to avoid a lull.

"Retailers are going to have to get creative, such as price discounts or special events, to keep the customer engaged," Patricia Edwards, chief investment officer for Bellevue, Washington-based Trutina Financial, said.

Consumers could care less about the "fiscal cliff"
Retailers had increasingly confident consumers visiting stores this weekend. More Americans this month said the U.S. economy will improve than at any time in the past decade, according to the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index. The share of households saying the economy would get better rose to 37%, the highest since March 2002. A year ago, the measure showed a record number of consumers said it was a bad time to spend.

The NRF said yesterday it may revise its holiday forecast once more is known about whether the U.S. Congress and Obama administration will avert the so-called fiscal cliff of budget cuts and tax-rate changes in 2013. It predicts holiday sales, including online, will rise 4.1% to about $586.1 billion this year, compared with a 5.6% gain in 2011.

Online shopping has lost any perceived stigma
E-commerce once had its very own holiday -- Cyber Monday -- when retailers promoted online shopping and consumers returning to work after Thanksgiving again had access to a high-speed internet connection. Now, shopping online has become de rigueur and consumers can easily shop at home or from their own devices.

Indeed, online retailers are poised for a record $43.4 billion holiday sales season as shoppers increasingly rely on social networks and mobile devices to find and buy merchandise. Internet sales will grow 17% from a year earlier and make up more than 10% of U.S. retail spending, excluding gas, food and cars in the year's final three months, said Andrew Lipsman, ComScore's VP-industry analysis. Online shopping on Black Friday rose 26% to exceed $1 billion for the first time, ComScore said.

"Retailers like Kohl's, Macy's and J.C. Penney are starting their Cyber Monday deals Sunday to transition their shoppers from the mall to their websites," said Miro Copic, a marketing professor at San Diego State University. "Retailers who wait may risk not having the momentum going into the holidays."

Holidays are no longer sacred
Thanksgiving Day, once reserved for family gatherings, saw the number of shoppers rise to more than 35 million from 29 million last year, the NRF said. About 28% of the weekend shoppers were in stores on Thursday night, up from about 24% last year. Meanwhile, online sales on Thanksgiving Day increased 32% to $633 million, according to ComScore.

Also telling, even as consumers and employees spoke out against early openings at Walmart and Target , many more consumers turned out for deals. Walmart said it was its best Black Friday ever.

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With contributions from Bloomberg News

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