Despite huge crowds fueled by heavy discounts, shoppers spent less on average on Black Friday and weren't able to give retailers the big boost they were hoping for.
Sales on the day after Thanksgiving rose just 0.5% to $10.66 billion, according to ShopperTrak RCT Corp., a research firm that monitors sales at more than 50,000 stores. That compared with a 3% year-over-year Black Friday increase in 2008 and an 8.3% surge in 2007.
"It's a positive sign that we had an increase in sales, but the numbers certainly don't indicate that those will be sustained," said Britt Beemer, chairman of consumer behavior firm America's Research Group.
Nationwide, 195 million shoppers visited stores and websites over the four-day weekend, up from 172 million last year, the National Retail Federation said Sunday.
But average spending fell 7.9%, to $343.31 per person, from $372.57 a year ago. Total spending reached an estimated $41.2 billion.
Although Black Friday doesn't dictate how the holiday season will perform, it does give retailers and industry watchers a gauge of how consumers are feeling going into the all-important holiday season.
What was clear this weekend was consumers' continued preference for good deals, with shoppers rushing to snap up discounted toys, electronics and apparel while avoiding items that were still full price. Retailers' warnings of low inventory levels led many shoppers to hit the malls early, when traffic was especially strong.
"The appetite among consumers this year seems to trend toward lower-priced items, the items they could afford with the money in their wallets," said Ellen Davis, vice president of the National Retail Federation.
Bargain hunting became a must for Athena Martinez, 46, after her husband was laid off from his job as a deliveryman for an air conditioning company this year and was out of work for five months.
While shopping at Citadel Outlets on Thanksgiving night, where most stores opened at 10 p.m., Martinez said financial worries had led her to try shopping for gifts at outlet stores.
"We're still trying to play catch-up," said the Anaheim resident, who added that her family would be focusing on necessities this holiday season and was cutting its budget by at least half. "No big-ticket items. No TVs, no iPods."
Sticking to a holiday budget was also a priority for Ivorine Graham, 44, who was lugging two pillows and an iron she bought for $40 at the Beverly Center on Friday.
"We used to buy a lot of presents for the kids," the Los Angeles nurse's assistant said. "But now we're just going to do one."
Popular purchases this weekend included clothing, books, toys and gift cards, the retail federation said.
A bright spot for merchants on Black Friday came online, where sales were surprisingly strong.
U.S. online sales rose 11% to $595 million, making it the second-heaviest day of online spending in 2009, tracking firm ComScore said.
And San Mateo-based analyst Coremetrics said the average amount that consumers spent per online order on Black Friday rose 35%, to $170.19, from $126.04 last year.
"There's a long-term trend where online is gaining share of total retail spending," said Andrew Lipsman, director of industry analysis for ComScore. "The fact that we're getting double-digit growth rates is a positive sign to kick off the holiday spending season. It can definitely be attributable to the kind of discounts and deals that were available."
Today, retailers will have another chance to grab online shoppers, with nearly 100 million consumers expected to shop on so-called Cyber Monday.
Retailers look to the Monday after Thanksgiving as another chance to score sales when shoppers log on at work to take advantage of their employers' fast Internet connections.
Although the importance of Cyber Monday has waned in recent years as more homes now have broadband, hundreds of merchants are still expected to offer promotions to spur sales today. Deals include extra discounts and free shipping.
With the holiday season officially underway, retailers, both in stores and online, will have to continue working hard for customer dollars, said Scott Krugman, a spokesman with the National Retail Federation.
The holiday season "is not a sprint -- it's a marathon," he said. "We still have a long way to go."
Times staff writers Alex Pham, Robert Faturechi and Amina Khan contributed to this report.