Jae C. Hong, Associated Press
Two customers walk with their purchased items after shopping at a Kohl's department store in La Habra, Calif., Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. Thousands of shoppers lined up at Macy's, Best Buy and other stores nationwide to buy everything from toys to tablets on Black Friday despite the economic downturn and some planned protests of the shopping holiday.
The holiday shopping season got off to a strong start on Black Friday, with retail sales up 7 percent over last year, according to the most recent survey. Now stores just have to keep buyers coming back without the promise of door-buster savings.
Buyers spent $11.4 billion at retail stores and malls, up nearly $1 billion from last year, according to a Saturday report from ShopperTrak. It was the largest amount ever spent on the day that marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season, and the biggest year-over-year increase since 2007. Chicago-based ShopperTrak gathers data from 25,000 outlets across the U.S., including individual stores and shopping centers.
The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. broke its Black Friday record for shoppers, thanks to a decision to open at midnight for the first time. Around 210,000 visitors came to the mall on Friday, up from 200,000 last year, according to mall spokeswoman Bridget Jewell.
Online shopping was strong as well, with a 24.3 percent increase in online spending on Black Friday, according to IBM, which tracks sales at 500 online retailers.
Bill Martin, who founded ShopperTrak, said he was surprised by the strong showing. He had expected the weak economy to dent consumer confidence and keep more shoppers out of the stores, or at least from spending much. Instead, he said, they responded to a blanket of promotions, from 60- and 70-percent off deals to door-buster savings on electronics.
"I'm pleased to see it. You can't have a great season without having a good Black Friday," Martin told The Associated Press in an interview.
Sales were also up 4 percent each in the two weeks leading up to Black Friday, as retailers started their promotions earlier than usual or extended their hours.
Still, he suspects things will quiet down this weekend, as promotions end and the buying frenzy subsides. ShopperTrak is expecting holiday sales to be up 3.3 percent this season. Retailers generally rely on sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas to make up 20 percent of their annual take.
There weren't many shoppers at Pioneer Place Mall in Portland, Ore., on Saturday.
"This is great, I'm glad I waited," said MaryJane Danan, who drove two hours from Corvallis, Ore., to go shopping with her teenage daughters. She stayed home on Black Friday because she thought the crowds would be huge. But she was surprised by how few people were out Saturday.
At Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, N.C., Mary Aker was forced to use valet parking Friday because she couldn't find a parking spot. But on Saturday, the pace had let up a little, so she and her husband came back to do some more shopping.
Aker, 58, a retired librarian, said she's spending about as much as she usually does for Christmas. But she's asking people what they want ahead of time to make sure everyone is happy.
At the same mall, sisters Patricia Harrington, Betty Thomas and Laverne Kelly had been shopping all weekend, starting with an all-nighter Thursday after Thanksgiving dinner. The sisters said things calmed down considerably by Friday and Saturday. They suspected a lot of people were shopping online, but they were also underwhelmed by the discounts.
"People are losing their jobs. They should have better deals," said Kelly, 50 and a customer service agent at FedEx.
"There are a lot of people out here but fewer bags," added Thomas, 52 and a health coordinator at a Raleigh hospital.
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Thanksgiving weekend, particularly Black Friday, is huge for retailers. Over the past six years, Black Friday was the biggest sales day of the year, and it is expected to keep that crown this year, though shoppers seem to be procrastinating more every year and the fate of the holiday season is increasingly coming down to the last few days before Christmas.
Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend accounted for 12.1 percent of overall holiday sales. Black Friday made up about half of that.
AP Business Writer Sarah Skidmore contributed from Portland, Ore. AP Business Writer Christina Rexrode contributed from Raleigh, N.C.