Shopping season starts with a bang

If you ventured into the stores this past weekend, you may have had the impression that economic activity was up.

It was. In fact, according to the National Retail Federation, it reached historic highs.

In a survey conducted Thursday through Saturday, a record 226 million shoppers visited stores or websites over the four-day weekend, up 14 million from last year.

And shoppers dug a little deeper into their wallets when making purchases. The NRF says that the average shopper spent $398.62 this past weekend, up sharply from the average expenditure of $365.34 by holiday shoppers last year.

The federation estimates that a whopping $52 billion was spent over the Black Friday weekend, and that record numbers of shoppers hits the stores — 86.3 million — and websites — 28.7 million — on Friday alone.

“Stuffed to the brim from their holiday meals and eager to shop, more consumers than ever turned out for retailers’ Black Friday promotions, a promising sign for the economic recovery,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay observed. “After an historic holiday weekend, retailers know the holiday season is far from over and will continue to look for ways to excite holiday shoppers and build on the momentum we’ve seen thus far.”

The survey also found that more shoppers hit the stores earlier, with nearly a fourth — 24.4 percent — inside stores, or in line to go in, by midnight Thanksgiving night. That is an amazing increase over the previous two years when 9.5 percent (2010) and 3.3 percent (2009) got that early of a start.

“The appetite for these early openings is only getting stronger among holiday shoppers, and retailers did a great job providing Americans just what they wanted this weekend — the ability to shop on Black Friday without having to get out of bed before dawn,” BIGresearch Executive Vice President Phil Rist, whose company conducted the survey, said. “Consumers are clearly demonstrating their desire to spend this holiday season, and shopping early and often seem to be their new mantra as they seek the best value for all their holiday purchases.”

The popular items were what you would have expected — clothes and clothing accessories led the parade by being purchased by more than half of the shoppers, and just under 40 percent bought electronics. Home decor, gift cards, toys and jewelry rounded out the top items list.

“Consumers are clearly demonstrating their desire to spend this holiday season, but are far from throwing caution to the wind when it comes to how much they will spend on gifts,” said Phil Rist, executive vice president of BIGresearch. “Retailers will have to stick to an aggressive holiday promotion schedule to keep consumers interested.”

So, out of the gates it’s looking pretty good, and the nation certainly could use a shot in the arm from stepped-up economic activity. Let’s hope this is a sign of better days ahead.