So how did stores boost the official 29-day shopping period? Opening up on Thanksgiving Day and moving Cyber Monday to Turkey Day itself.
For the first time, the likes of Sears opened the doors on what traditionally has been a retail holiday. It also has been holding Black Friday sales for months to get more shoppers through the doors.
National Retail Federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis said 18 million people said they shopped on Thanksgiving Day last year and though that's not enough to make the day a record breaker, "a lot of retailers are finding benefit to opening their doors to holiday shopping."
"Our decision to stay open on Thanksgiving Day was based on our customers' response and desire to have an extra day to shop," said David Friedman, senior vice president of Sears Holdings and president of marketing. "We are always listening to our customers to make their shopping experience easier, and now, by being open on Thanksgiving, they can start their shopping early or pick up last minute items needed for their Thanksgiving celebration."
Black Friday also started Thursday for Walmart, which said it would price-match competitors' Black Friday ads. The discount-retailing giant put its Black Friday specials online Thursday and began offering treats and entertainment at midnight Friday morning for the five hours preceding its electronics deals.
"We're making this year's Friday after Thanksgiving a special, festive event with big savings starting at midnight, and lots of food and fun for our customers while they shop and wait for the electronics deals starting at 5 a.m.," said Stephen Quinn, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Walmart.
The last couple of Christmas seasons have been pretty anemic for retailers as a result of the recession, with sales in 2009 up just 0.4 percent over 2008, which itself saw sales plummet 3.9 percent from 2007, Grannis said.
Grannis said 40 percent of consumers start their holiday shopping before Halloween. By Thanksgiving, that number is approaching 77 percent.
SpendingPulse says retail sales have been improving since August with early November increases in "key holiday categories" pointing to a "solid start to the holiday season."
"For now at least, we are seeing some decent growth numbers and while levels are not yet back to 2007, the year-over-year growth stats are helping to get the holiday season off to an encouraging start," SpendingPulse Vice President for Research and Analysis Michael McNamara said.
The National Retail Federation is forecasting a 2.3 percent increase in spending to $447.1 billion.
A survey, conducted by BIGresearch of 8,767 consumers Oct. 5-12, found consumers plan to increase holiday-related spending slightly from last year to an average $688.87 from $681.37, and turn their attention away from basic necessities, adding co-workers and others -- including themselves -- back onto their giving lists. Fewer people said they planned to do all their shopping at discounters.
And the shopping process itself is changing. Consumers long have been comparison shopping on foot and online. Now they are starting to do it via smartphone (26.8 percent said they'd use that method) and retailers are jumping on the trend, offering mobile apps and Web sites complete with product reviews.
One thing the recession has taught consumers is that debt is a bad thing. NRF said fewer will be using credit cards this season with debit cards (43 percent) and cash (25.7 percent) reigning supreme.
"Many families may choose to leave credit cards at home as they shop this year, making sure to only purchase what's on their list and within their budget," NRF President and Chief Executive Officer Matthew Shay said.
But for many the recession isn't over and for others the attitudes adopted in the last couple of years are permanent.
The Research Shop Inc. reports more than half of the 2,700 consumers in the United States and Canada queried in April saw their financial situations as only fair (39 percent) or poor (17 percent) and just 38 percent were expecting their prospects to improve. Nevertheless, 28 percent planned to loosen the purse-strings although the focus was still on need or replacement rather than discretionary spending.
As an indication of the improving economic situation, 20 percent of consumers told NRF pollsters they planned to shop for jewelry this year, compared with 18 percent last year.
"You can read into that people are more willing to spend," Grannis said.
Both the toy and housewares industries said the recession didn't much affect sales: toys because parents still want to make their children happy and housewares because people entertained more at home rather than partying outside, spokesmen for those industries have said.
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