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Why Black Friday Was Huge This Year

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- To say retailers had a big Black Friday this year would be an understatement.

Shoppers mobbed retail stores across the country on Thursday night and Friday morning, and the results speak for themselves: Retail sales for the day were up 7% over last year, with shoppers buying a whopping $11.4 billion worth of merchandise.

Black Friday retail sales exceeded even the wildest expectations, and there are some key reasons for the huge sales bump.

So with unemployment and economic uncertainty still high, why did shoppers go so crazy this weekend?

Oddly enough, it was those very economic woes that drove some of the foot traffic Friday. Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for market research firm NPD Group, says many of those shopping on Black Friday were getting discounted merchandise for themselves after months of self-imposed austerity.

"Consumers tell us that they're out there seeking bargains, and 44% of consumers just bought for themselves and didn't even start gifting yet," he explains. "Consumers are tired of not buying for themselves."

In other words, recession-weary Americans who had put discretionary spending on hold for months finally found themselves enticed by dirt-cheap door-buster prices on TVs and other items.

Earlier opening times also played a role in the big sales bump. Many retailers opened their doors at midnight on Black Friday this year, and Toys "R" Us and Target (TGT) sparked some controversy by opening their doors Thanksgiving Day. Although the vast majority of consumers said stores should stay closed on the holiday in a recent survey by retail research organization Consumer Search, and many employees cried foul over being forced to come in early, it looks like the Thanksgiving gambit paid off for retailers.

"Those early openings were tied to promotions -- for instance, if you're in the store during these hours, you get a certain percentage off," explains Jackie Fernandez, a partner at consulting firm Deloitte. "They coupled and timed the early openings with big promotions to draw the customer in."

The extended hours also provided a degree of convenience to Black Friday shoppers, allowing them to hit stores on Thursday night and Friday morning, Cohen adds.

"It allowed them to stagger their shopping," he explains. "You can shop at 9 p.m. at the toy store, shop at 10 p.m. at Wal-Mart (WMT), go to Target at midnight and at 4 a.m. shop at J.C. Penny (JCP)."

So while retail employees and some consumers scoffed at the notion of Black Friday bleeding into Thursday, it's clear many shoppers rewarded retailers who chose to open their doors early. Given the massive sales bump that resulted, we can likely expect to see more of the same next year.

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