NEW YORK — If you make it convenient for shoppers, they will come.
It's estimated that U.S. shoppers hit stores and websites at record numbers over the four-day 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 websites over the four-day weekend starting Thanksgiving, up 9.2 percent 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 percent 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 East Harlem store. During the two-hour wait in line, she also bought items on her iPhone on Amazon.com. 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.
The results 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 at time when some of them are fearful about the weak job market and the potential that a wave of tax increases and budget cuts known as the "fiscal cliff" will take effect if Congress fails to reach a budget deal by January.
Retailers, which can make up to 40 percent of their online revenue in November and December, were hoping Americans would respond to incentives like the Thanksgiving openings, which enabled them to kick off the season earlier than ever. The National Retail Federation estimates that overall sales in November and December will rise 4.1 percent 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.
"Retailers and consumers both won this weekend, especially on Thanksgiving," said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation.
Here were the trends that emerged over the weekend:
— Online wave: According to comScore, which tracks online spending, online sales rose 26 percent to $1.04 billion on Black Friday compared with a year ago. On Thanksgiving, online sales rose 32 percent from last year to $633 million. And online sales on Black Friday were up 26 percent from the same day last year to $1.042 billion. It was the first time online sales on Black Friday surpassed $1 billion.
— Thanksgiving shopping: Many stores, including Toys R Us and Target, opened on Thanksgiving evening this year. No data is out yet about how much shoppers spent on that day, but it appears that consumers took advantage of the earlier start.
ShopperTrak, which analyzes customer traffic at 40,000 U.S. stores, plans to release sales data for Thanksgiving later this week, but the firm is estimating that retailers generated $700 million in sales on the holiday.
Linda and James Michaels, who live in Portland, Ore., hit up the big sales on Thanksgiving and got everything they were hoping for that night. They picked up remote control cars and some Mickey Mouse items on sale at Toys-R-Us. Then they went a few doors down to Target and scored the last Operation game on sale for $7 at Target. They were even able to pick up some pajamas and shoes along the way for the kids. In total they spent about $300.
"I fell lucky that I caught the deals and there was no craziness, no fighting," Linda Michaels said. "I was nervous."
— Black Friday flop: It appears that the Thanksgiving openings may have hurt sales on the day after Thanksgiving, which is usually the biggest shopping day of the year.
Black Friday sales totaled $11.2 billion, down 1.8 percent from last year, according to ShopperTrak. That's below ShopperTrak's estimate that Black Friday sales would rise 3.8 percent to $11.4 billion.
Karen Macdonald, a spokeswoman at Taubman Centers, which operates 28 malls across the country, said that Thanksgiving openings hurt business for the industry. Based on a sampling of 10 malls, sales growth was unchanged up to mid-single digits on Friday, and unchanged up to low single digit on Saturday.
"It was a different feeling," she said. "It was a good Black Friday, but I don't think it was great."