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Holiday Shopping Season Off to Record Start

By Anne D'Innocenzio, AP Retail Writer

NEW YORK -- If you make holiday shopping convenient, Americans will come in droves.

It's estimated that U.S. shoppers hit stores and Web sites at record numbers over the Thanksgiving weekend, according to a survey released by the National Retail Federation on Sunday. They were attracted by retailers' efforts to make shopping easier, including opening stores on Thanksgiving evening, updating mobile shopping applications for smartphones and tablets, and expanding shipping and layaway options.

All told, a record 247 million shoppers visited stores and Web sites over the four-day weekend starting on Thanksgiving, up 9.2% of last year, according to a survey of 4,000 shoppers that was conducted by research firm BIGinsight for the trade group. Americans spent more too: The average holiday shopper spent $423 over the entire weekend, up from $398. Total spending over the four-day weekend totaled $59.1 billion, up 12.8% from 2011.

Caitlyn Maguire, 21, was one of the shoppers that took advantage of all the new conveniences of shopping this year. Maquire, who lives in New York, began buying on Thanksgiving night at Target's (TGT) East Harlem store. During the two-hour wait in line, she also bought items on her iPhone on Amazon.com (AMZN). On Friday, she picked up a few toys at Toys R Us. And on Saturday she was out at the stores again.

"I'm basically done," said Maguire, who spent about $400 over the weekend.

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The results for the weekend appear to show that retailers' efforts to make shopping effortless for U.S. consumers during the holiday shopping season worked. Retailers upped the ante in order to give Americans more reasons to shop. Stores feared that consumers might not spend because of the weak job market and worries that tax increases and budget cuts will take effect if Congress fails to reach a budget deal by January.

Retailers, which can make up to 40% of their online revenue in November and December, were hoping Thanksgiving openings and other incentives would help boost what's expected to be a difficult holiday shopping season. The National Retail Federation estimates that overall sales in November and December will rise 4.1% this year to $586.1 billion. That's more than a percentage point lower than the growth in each of the past two years, and the smallest increase since 2009, when sales were nearly flat.

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