By Nandita Bose
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Early holiday promotions and a belief that deals will always be available took a toll on consumer spending over the Thanksgiving weekend as shoppers spent an average of 3.5 percent less than a year ago, the National Retail Federation said on Sunday.
The NRF said its survey of 4,330 consumers, conducted on Friday and Saturday by research firm Prosper Insights & Analytics, showed that shoppers spent $289.19 over the four-day weekend through Sunday compared to $299.60 over the same period a year earlier.
The survey found that 154 million people made purchases over the four days, up from 151 million a year ago. However, there was a 4.2 percent rise in consumers who shopped online and a 3.7 percent drop in shoppers who purchased in a store.
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The U.S. holiday shopping season is expanding, and Black Friday is no longer the kickoff for the period it once was, with more retailers starting holiday promotions as early as October and running them until Christmas Eve.
NRF Chief Executive Officer Matt Shay said the drop in spending is a direct result of the early promotions and deeper discounts offered throughout the season.
"Consumers know they can get good deals throughout the season and these opportunities are not a one-day or one-weekend phenomenon and that has showed up in shopping plans," he said.
Shay said more 23 percent of consumers this year have not even started shopping for the season, which is up 4 percent from last year and indicates those sales are yet to come. The NRF stuck to its forecast for retail sales to rise 3.6 percent this holiday season, on the back of strong jobs and wage growth.
Apparel, accessories, toys, electronics, books, video games and gift cards were popular items bought over the weekend, Prosper Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow said.
Craig Johnson, president of retail consultancy Consumer Growth Partners, projected that store sales grew by less than 1 percent whereas online sales rose 14 percent from last year.
Separate research released on Saturday by Adobe Digital Insights showed Thanksgiving and Black Friday online sales were $5.27 billion, up 18 percent from a year earlier and higher than its estimate of $5.05 billion.
Eight of the top 10 e-commerce sites in terms of traffic over the weekend belonged to those who had brick-and-mortar stores, the NRF said.
RetailNext, another analytics firm, on Saturday said net sales at brick-and-mortar stores fell 5.0 percent over Thursday and Friday, while the number of transactions fell 7.9 percent.
(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Chicago; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)