By Martinne Geller and Brad Dorfman
NEW YORK/CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. shoppers spent 6.4 percent more this Black Friday weekend than last year and hit department stores and clothing shops, rather than focusing on discounters as they had done in recent years.
Analysts said that after two years of flocking to Wal-Mart and even dollar stores in order to save money during the economic crisis, more confident consumers may have been ready for a change.
"Shopping is an entertainment, as well as an outing and going to the same-old same-old gets stale," Kin Caughey Forrest, senior equity analyst Fort Pitt Capital Group, said.
Also, while not looking solely for the lowest price, shoppers still spent cautiously, focusing on deals and shunning stores that did not have compelling discounts.
"At Wal-Mart, people were literally buying the sale items and avoiding other parts of the store," Patty Edwards, chief investment officer at Trutina Financial.
Total retail traffic will have risen 8.7 percent to 212 million shoppers from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday, compared with the same period in 2009, according to the survey from the National Retail Federation.
Shoppers will have spent $45 billion online and in stores over the four days, according to the survey, which includes estimated spending for Sunday. That compares with $41.2 billion in 2009.
Spending per person rose to $365.34 from $343.31 a year earlier, NRF said.
The NRF survey, conducted by BIGresearch, showed that 52 percent of shoppers surveyed said they planned to go to department stores, up from 49.4 percent a year earlier. Clothing stores also gained, at 24.4 percent versus 22.9 percent a year earlier.
But discounters fell, with 40.3 percent saying they shopped at those stores, compared with 43.2 percent last year.
Overall, the start to the holiday shopping season showed that consumers, whose spending accounts for about 70 percent of the U.S. economy, were willing to open their wallets more and buy more than just basics.
NRF spokeswoman Ellen Davis said that jewelry, an emblematic discretionary items, was a big seller, with 22 percent more people saying they bought jewelry this weekend than last year.
But the effects of the recession and economic meltdown lingered and while experts still expect this to be the best holiday season in three years for retail, they do not see a return to willy-nilly spending.
"We certainly aren't back to 2007," Trutina Financial's Edwards said.
Edwards pegged Limited Brands Inc as one of the best performers over the weekend.
At the same time, Wal-Mart Stores Inc, which is trying to end a string of six quarters with falling sales at its U.S. discount stores, "didn't hit it out of the park, which they needed to do," she said.
Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi said that those retailers with effective promotions, like Gap Inc, Aeropostale and Abercrombie & Fitch co were among the weekend's winners.
Shoppers said that discounts were less generous this year than last year.
Shanell James, who was shopping on Sunday morning in Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood at a Marshalls store operated by TJX Cos Inc, said the weekend's discounts were less steep than a year ago, but also that her own finances were improved.
"The prices went up from last year," James said. "It doesn't affect me much but it will affect a lot of low-income families."
The average store discount was around 50 percent off on Friday and 40 percent on Saturday, Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry analyst at NPD Group, said. That is less of a discount than last year.
While traffic and spending showed gains, it is still too early to say whether retailers will be winners this holiday season, especially if early online and store deals have already gotten consumers to complete the bulk of their shopping.
"It remains to be seen for the consumer how much more spend they have in them," said Chris Donnelly, senior executive in consulting firm Accenture's retail practice.
At the end of the weekend, the average consumer will have completed about 38.6 percent of their shopping, a figure roughly in line with last year, the retail federation said.
The start to the holiday shopping season was spread over more days this year, with retailers offering deals earlier in the week.
SHOPPING EARLY, ONLINE
Traffic to stores on Friday rose 2.2 percent from a year ago, according to ShopperTrak, but sales rose by a mere 0.3 percent, which shows that where shoppers made purchases, it was often on discounted items.
The difference between those tepid numbers and the larger gains seen in the NRF survey could be indications of how much more shopping for the holidays is being done online and on Thanksgiving Day as more retailers open their doors on the holiday itself, Accenture's Donnelly said.
Data from analytics firm comScore on Sunday showed online holiday spending rose 9 percent to $648 million on Friday, while Thanksgiving online sales rose 28 percent to $407 million as retailers pushed deals to attract shoppers taking a break from family dinners and football games.
(Additional reporting by Phil Wahba, editing by Matthew Lewis and Marguerita Choy)