Thank you for shopping

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The numbers are in for the official first weekend of holiday shopping and they’re, well, mixed. The importance of Thanksgiving shopping and each of the named weekend days to retailers’ bottom lines can’t be understated. But media coverage of the big event was mixed.

Here’s the take from the New York Times, which ran under the headline “Early Push for Sales Undercuts Black Friday.”

After spending years to make Black Friday into the year’s blockbuster shopping day, retailers undercut themselves last week.

Sales on the day after Thanksgiving fell from those a year earlier, according to one major tracker, the first decline since the recession of 2008, as stores started their “doorbuster” promotions early in the week and opened for business on Thursday evening.

The culprit seems to be less a faltering economy and more a diffusion of holiday shopping to other days and online.

While store visits on the Friday after Thanksgiving rose 3.5 percent from last year, to more than 307 million visits, retail sales decreased 1.8 percent, according to the research firm ShopperTrak.

On Thanksgiving, meanwhile, there was almost a 21 percent increase in the number of people making visits to stores or Web sites in the United States, according to the National Retail Federation.

“The early promotions and early openings on Thursday drew some of the sales that would normally land on Friday into Thursday,” said Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak. “What we’re going to start looking at is the ‘Black Weekend,’ a four-day weekend.”

About 28 percent of people surveyed by the federation who said they were shopping over the weekend started at midnight or earlier on Thanksgiving. In 2009, when major retailers started experimenting with Thanksgiving openings, that figure was just 3 percent.

And then the Wall Street Journal’s slightly more upbeat version headlined “Early Sales Pay Off, For Now.”

Retailers reported a big jump in consumer spending over the Thanksgiving weekend as shoppers flocked to stores, snapped up online discounts and, according to some merchants, paid repeat visits to the mall.

But the overall increase wasn’t as robust as last year’s. And some indicators showed a decline in spending at stores on Black Friday itself, leading to questions about whether retailers’ new tactics are simply shifting spending to different days and sales outlets.

Merchants with strong Web presences were positioned to be the big winners: for the first time, more than half of consumers said they shopped on the Internet over the weekend. Online spending on Friday alone topped $1 billion for the first time, according to the data-analysis firm comScore Inc.

Total spending for the weekend reached an estimated $59.1 billion, a 13% increase from a year ago, according to the National Retail Federation. Last year the group said sales rose 16% over the weekend.

A consumer survey conducted for the trade association by BIGinsight found that shoppers spent an average of $423 over the weekend, up 6% from $398 last Thanksgiving weekend.

A strong kickoff of holiday shopping isn’t necessarily a sign that overall sales during the season will rise.

The Chicago Sun-Times was even more excited about the numbers:

For retailers, it’s all part of the fourth-quarter rush that for many will decide if the year is profitable. Like a football team strategizing for the gridiron’s fourth quarter, the merchants want to play to their strengths.

That means starting the promotional season early, bumping it up to early November in some cases. It means rolling out discounts at various times in the buildup to Christmas to keep people interested and coming back.

The retail federation estimated Sunday that 139.4 million adults visited stores and online retail sites in the United States during the Thursday-through-Sunday period, up 6 percent from 131 million last year. Counting repeat visitors, the federation estimated 247 million shoppers browsed and bought during the Black Friday period, vs. 226 million last year, a 9 percent increase.

The visits translated into spending estimated at $59.1 billion, or about $423 per shopper, up almost 13 percent from $52.4 billion during 2011’s Thanksgiving weekend.

A survey for the federation by BIGinsight found that 41 percent of the shopping expenditures were made online, up from 38 percent a year ago.

As for the stores that violated the sanctity of Thanksgiving by opening late Thursday, evidence shows the move paid off, despite the criticism in some quarters. Shay said Thursday night shopping is becoming a part of the holiday, especially for younger people.

No matter which way you write it, the numbers were actually decent for the kick-off weekend of the holiday shopping season. They weren’t over the top, signaling that people are still cautious about spending too much. But sales were good enough for retailers to feel a bit better about the year.

Either way, happy shopping if you still have items on your list.