Shoppers lured by deep discounts and early store openings sent sales over the four days starting on Thanksgiving soaring 16.7 percent over the same period a year ago to $52.4 billion, according to the National Retail Federation.
"American consumers are taking a deep breath and making the decision that it's okay to go shopping again, in spite of high unemployment and uncertainty over the stock market and housing market," Ellen Davis, vice president of the trade group, said during a media briefing Sunday.
Consumers spent an average of $398.62 over the four days, up from $365.34 last year, according to the retail federation. The jump in sales reflects, in part, the deluge of 226 million shoppers hitting stores this year, compared with 212 million last year. The numbers comprise in-store and online shopping. About 35 percent of total spending was online, slightly higher than last year, the federation said.
Macy's, Walmart, Best Buy and Kohl's were among retailers that opened Thanksgiving night or at midnight for the first time, fueling a trend that might set the tone of Black Friday shopping for years.
Young adults drove a hefty portion of late-night sales. According to a survey conducted by BIGresearch, 37 percent of Black Friday shoppers 18 to 34 years old went out at midnight.
Merchants entered this holiday season with the European debt crisis, weak U.S. economic growth and failed "supercommittee" talks threatening to sour consumers on spending. Consumer spending makes up roughly 70 percent of the U.S. GDP, making the holiday season, when retailers earn as much as 40 percent of their annual sales, a crucial time.
Analysts had projected a 3 percent increase in holiday sales this year, down from the 5 percent growth registered last year. Even with the robust returns of the Thanksgiving weekend, industry insiders are sticking to their seasonal forecasts.
"Black Friday is one piece of the holiday pie," Davis said, noting that the day typically represents about 10 percent of a retailer's holiday sales. "Many companies are encouraged by their sales from over the weekend, but Black Friday is not always an indication of the rest of the holiday season."
As in previous years, clothing and accessories were popular, as were promotions on electronics and computer-related accessories, according to BIGresearch. Department stores remained the most popular destinations, with discount stores right behind.
Black Friday remained the most popular shopping day of the four-day period, as 86.3 million bargain hunters headed out to stores or onto the Internet, according to the federation.