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U.S. stores offered deep discounts, entertainment and free gifts to lure bargain hunters on Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday retail season, but some shoppers said they were just browsing the merchandise, reserving their cash for internet purchases.
Still, a sharp rise in online sales brightened the overall outlook for those traditional retailers that have expanded beyond brick-and-mortar outlets, sending their shares higher in day-after-Thanksgiving trading. Stores also carefully managed inventory, seeking to ward off any post-holiday liquidation that would weigh on profits.
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There was little evidence of the delirious shopper frenzy customary of previous Black Fridays, even as some stores got creative with gimmicks besides heavy discounts to draw in customers.
No data for Friday's brick-and-mortar business were immediately available.
Despite anecdotal signs of muted in-store sales — fewer cars in mall parking lots, shoppers leaving stores without purchases in hand — consumers are still expected to spend more overall this holiday season than last, analysts and industry executives said.
Adobe Analytics, which measures transactions at the 100 largest U.S. web retailers, projected that online retailers would rake in $6.6 billion more on Cyber Monday.
Indeed, some chains struggled to keep up, with brief online outages experienced by Lowe's, H&M and the Gap, among others, according to website performance monitors.
Macy's customers in several states, including Texas, Arizona and Illinois, took to social media to complain about the retailer's credit card processing system. The company acknowledged that processing was taking longer than usual in its stores and said it was working on the problem.
Macy's and J.C. Penney Co. Inc. did better jobs of ordering and controlling inventory this time, said Burt Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resources Group, a consultancy with seven researchers out in the field.
"The turnout this morning has been relatively slow, but it is still the best we have seen in three years," Flickinger said, citing improving consumer confidence, a strong job market and healthy housing prices.
Fair weather across much of the nation also was factor, said Matthew Shay, president of the National Retail Federation.
Some shoppers were enticed by the promise of spectacle, while others felt the pull of nostalgia.
"There’s something nostalgic about being at the stores this early,” Jennifer Stasiak said at Chicago’s popular Oakbrook Center.
But not everyone found the Black Friday magic irresistible.
"I avoid the store, too many crowds," said Elana Silverstein, 32, a school counselor who was enjoying a warm, sunny day at a Los Angeles park. Instead, Silverstein said, she bought several personal items on sale Thursday night through the online marketplace Groupon.