People line up to get into a store on Fifth Avenue looking for Black Friday sales in New York on Nov. 29.
Many retailers' controversial choice to kick off the holiday shopping season early, on Thanksgiving, may not pay off as much as they had hoped.
Eager to entice cautious consumers, especially with six fewer Christmas shopping days this year than in 2012, many retailers launched sales on Thursday's U.S. holiday, traditionally a day for family, friends and football games. Even Macy's flagship store in New York City opened on Thanksgiving at 8 p.m. for the first time in its 155-year history.
Some shoppers played along, hitting the Internet and stores on Thanksgiving. But by late Friday morning, foot traffic looked a lot more like on a regular Saturday than the typical Black Friday frenzy that kicks off the holiday season.
"It's a lot less than I thought," said Alison Goodwin, from Horsham, Pa., who ventured to an area mall on Friday seeking gifts and maybe something for herself.
"It's like any weekend in December," Goodwin said.
While mall traffic appeared slower than last year, overall Black Friday online sales as of noon Friday were up more than 7 percent from a year ago, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark. That came on top of the 19.7 percent increase on Thanksgiving Day, the firm said.
Wal-Mart Chief Executive Bill Simon said Thanksgiving visits to stores of the largest U.S. retailer surpassed last year's 22 million mark, and a swarm of online shoppers temporarily crashed its online site.
David Berman, founder of Durban Capital, a New York hedge fund that specializes in retail and consumer stocks, said American shopping habits have permanently shifted with the exponential rise in online shopping, thanks largely to smart devices, notably Apple's top-selling iPad.
Sales of big-ticket items like smartphones have helped mask weaknesses in traditional retail, he noted.
"By our calculations, half of U.S. publicly held retailer sales growth is coming from SAA (Samsung, Apple and Amazon)," said Berman.
Tooth and nail
Retailers often record the majority of their annual sales during the end-of-year holiday shopping season, and rely on discounts and marketing blitzes to try and grab a slice of spending estimated at some $600 billion annually.
The battle for the consumer dollar has been particularly intense in a year when taxes have increased, unemployment has remained stubbornly high, and confidence has taken a hit from a recent government shutdown and uncertainty over the introduction of President Barack Obama's healthcare reforms.
Offsetting those negatives has been the wealth impact of a rise in home prices and a rallying stock market, though those are more likely to help the luxury end of retailing.
Even Apple is not immune to this year's heightened competition.
A new Ipsos/Reuters poll found that, among consumers thinking of buying a tablet, 21 percent favored Amazon's Kindle Fire, followed by 19 percent for Apple's iPad and 17 percent for Samsung's Galaxy.
In a rare gesture from the iPad maker and a nod to intense competition from Samsung, tech giants like Microsoft, Google and online retailer Amazon, Apple is offering gift cards worth up to $75 for every purchase on its website.
Shoppers lured to a Target store in Bensalem, Pa., by an even better iPad Air deal (a $100 Target gift card along with the $479 device) arrived too late on Friday morning, as the store had sold out.
Reuters reporters in several cities found shoppers cherry-picking discounted flat-screen televisions and other door busters without adding higher-margin items to their purchases - behavior that could bite into retail profits.
Overall, Berman said, "sales will eventually be OK, but margins won't."
EBay was the second best performer in the Standard & Poor's 500 index on Friday, gaining 2.5 percent, and Best Buy was third, rising 2.4 percent. Apple and Amazon were also in the top 10 on Friday, when trading closed early.
Kohl's Corp and Nordstrom Inc. fell 1.1 percent and 0.8 percent, respectively.
The National Retail Federation is predicting that sales for the November and December holiday season will grow 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion - excluding such items as gasoline, restaurant meals or purchases of gift cards - leaving retailers to battle for a bigger slice of that somewhat larger pie.
However, NRF estimates each consumer will spend an average of $737.95 during the season, down 2 percent from 2012. Its forecast is based on an online survey and actual spending, including on gift cards. Retailers book gift card sales when the cards are used to make actual purchases.
While growing briskly, online sales still account for a small portion of overall sales in November and December. Holiday sales are forecast to grow 13 to 15 percent to as much as $82 billion, according to Shop.org.
This year's holiday shopping results likely will mimic the slow-growing U.S. economy, said Can Erbil, an adjunct associate professor of economics at Boston College.
"Last year's shopping season was actually pretty bad. The Connecticut school shootings, Hurricane Sandy, and fiscal cliff fears really hit the shopping season hard. So the benchmark is low," Erbil said.
The sea of holiday deals failed to impress some shoppers.
For Luis Figueiro, a retired Brazilian on vacation in New York, called the scene at Macy's flagship store on Thanksgiving evening "madness" and said the mobs of shoppers made it difficult to see the products on sale.
His wife, Irene, traveled with him from Rio with Black Friday deals in mind, but was disappointed to find that many items were not discounted.
"If someone comes without a clear notion of prices, it awakens something in you. But if you know what the items usually cost, you aren't fazed," she said.