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NEW YORK (MainStreet) - Black Friday shopping increased significantly from last year, according to a new survey from the National Retail Federation.

Total sales reached $45 billion this weekend, up from $41.2 billion last year. This is partly attributable to a consumer base more willing to open its wallets, as average spending by Black Friday shoppers increased to $365.34 from $343.31 in 2009. But it also reflects a higher volume of shoppers hitting the mall over the weekend: The total number of shoppers visiting stores and online retail sites reached 212 million, an increase of nearly 9% from 2009.

The numbers come as good news for a retail sector that’s been battered during the past two years as the economic downturn and spiking unemployment caused many shoppers to tighten their belts. Still, it’s too early to conclude whether the strong weekend sales are a positive omen for the economy as a whole. The NRF warns that the high volume of shoppers largely reflects the draw of big discounts rather than economic confidence, a conclusion backed up by the large number of shoppers camping out early for big deals – a whopping 24% of Black Friday shoppers were already in stores by 4 a.m., the NRF found.

Other metrics also showed positive growth, though these too come with caveats. The marketing research firm comScore, for instance, found that online Black Friday sales grew by $648 million from 2009. But this doesn’t necessarily indicate that shoppers are more willing to spend – just that more retailers are taking their sales online and that consumers are happy to take advantage. “Online shopping is increasingly becoming the refuge of those preferring to avoid the crowds and long lines,” said comScore chairman Gian Fulgoni in a press release.

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Indeed, the early returns cannot even be said to predict a strong holiday season for retailers. With so many shoppers spending big this weekend, it’s worth wondering how many of them have finished their shopping for the season. If too many shoppers have already wrapped up their gift-buying, it could be another cold winter for retailers.

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