A focus on bargains pulled U.S. shoppers into stores and onto websites over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, but many said they would stick to their budgets and avoid purchases if they couldn't find a good deal.
Shoppers turned out in force on Black Friday, the day after U.S. Thanksgiving, and returned on Saturday for more.
Industry executives and analysts have predicted a tough holiday season that may only show a slight improvement over 2008, when retailers logged their worst holiday sales performance in nearly four decades, due to a weak economy and high unemployment.
''This will be the hardest holiday season ever to predict,'' said Eric Karson, associate professor of marketing at Villanova University's School of Business.
''We have this big game of chicken now evolving between the retailers and the customers,'' he said, referring to steep promotions on select items that were once intended to lure traffic and are now expected by shoppers. ''The whole idea of the loss leader getting people into the store to buy other things may not work as well as it has in the past.'' Some shoppers showed they were still relying on lessons learned from the 2008 season, which began just after a global financial crisis erupted. Armed with highly specific shopping lists, they would hunt for particular products or leave stores if they could not find the right item at the right price.
''The sales are good, but do they mark the things up beforehand? Sure, things are 25 percent, 40 percent off, but when you're starting out at $50 or $39 for a top, that's still some money,'' said Helene Mitauer, who shopped for herself at an Express store in Philadelphia on Friday.
An unemployment rate above 10 percent and other economic pressures also weighed on the minds of shoppers.
''I personally feel that there's a palpable difference, that it's changed,'' said Don Calvert, an international trade specialist at the Commerce Department, who was out by a Washington D.C.
Filene's store a couple of blocks from the White House. ''There are fewer people in clothing stores. There are even fewer people at electronics stores.'' ONLINE SALES JUMP More shoppers spent time online at the start of the 2009 holiday season. They spent 35 percent more on Black Friday web purchases than a year earlier, with the average order value reaching $170.19, according to online retail analytics company Coremetrics. Those shoppers bought an average of 5.4 items per order, up from 4.6 items last year, Coremetrics said.
Coremetrics said people spent less time on each site, perhaps because they had done research ahead of time and knew where to find what they wanted. Shoppers also took a break from holiday festivities and went online on Thanksgiving.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc's site Walmart.com was the most popular retail site on Thanksgiving for the fifth year in a row, followed by Amazon.com Inc and the site for Best Buy Inc, according to tracking firm Hitwise.
''Online shopping really hurt the stores. I got so many coupons in my e-mail but you can only use them online. So people are like 'Why go to the stores?,''' said Yonaira Rodriguez, who shopped Friday at Liberty Place in Philadelphia.
Online sales are growing, but they still account for less than 4 percent of total retail sales, Karson said.
While luxury goods are expected to feel the biggest pinch this year, one jewelry store at Taubman's Cherry Creek mall in Denver said it sold a $30,000 watch on Black Friday.
Now that the Black Friday rush has passed, retailers are not letting Saturday's potential for shoppers pass them by.
Kohl's Corp, whose website shut down for a bit on Friday, advertised ''Christmas Super Saturday'' sales on its website and in stores.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart hoped to lure shoppers with limited quantities of Samsung HDTVs, including a 32-inch model priced at $398. Wal-Mart also plans to host exclusive viewings of footage from Miley Cyrus's Wonder World Tour on Saturday afternoon, and said fans at some stores would get free pizza.