CHICAGO, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- Retailers are anticipating a jolly holiday as shoppers get off to a fast and early start to the holiday season.
A record 247 million shoppers visited stores and websites during the Black Friday weekend, up from 226 million last year, the National Retail Federation said. Retailers say it appears holiday sales are coming back from the lows set at the start of the recession.
The NRF's spending survey, released in October, suggested a healthy return to gift giving, and family members aren't the only ones who will benefit from the trend. Consumers say they plan to spend an average of $104 on gifts for their close friends, up from $97 last year. Pets, babysitters, postal workers and other community acquaintances will also benefit this year from increased generosity.
"The average person will spend more than $63 on some of the most important people -- and pets -- in their lives, up from $56 last year," the NRF said.
Gift cards are the most requested and the most purchased gift item, the survey suggests. NRF's gift card survey found eight in 10 will buy at least one gift card. During the Thanksgiving weekend, nearly a third of all shoppers said they bought gift cards.
Electronic toys, clothing and accessories are filling shopping baskets this season. Forty-five percent of consumers said they were looking for toys to give as gifts. Six in 10 say they will buy clothes and accessories -- the most since 2006.
The Consumer Electronics Association says consumer confidence in technology inched higher in November, while confidence in the overall economy sank to the lowest level of 2012.
"Coming off a strong Black Friday weekend dominated by tech buying, consumer sentiment is looking up for tech," Shawn DuBravac, CEA's chief economist and senior director of research, said in a statement. "Electronics were the second most purchased item this weekend, behind only clothes. A third of all spending between Thursday and Monday was on technology products."
Digitas and Brandwatch analyzed more than 2.6 million holiday shopping conversations on social channels Nov. 20-26. Of those 2.6 million social media shopping conversations, more than 550,000 occurred on Thanksgiving Day alone.
Of 84,966 mentions naming shopping destinations, consumers pointed most often to Walmart, followed by Target, Best Buy and Macy's.
Tech gadgets topped shopping wish lists, with 34 percent specifically naming smartphones and tablets. Culture-related items and experiences such as books, movies, and show tickets ranked second with 22 percent of social media mentions. Clothing followed in third place, with 20 percent of the social buzz.
ShopperTrak says shoppers are spending but they're still looking for a good deal.
"Shoppers follow value. And this year, for the first time, retailers presented significant value for shopping on Thanksgiving Day," said Bill Martin, ShopperTrak founder. "So even though retail sales were slightly down on Black Friday, traffic and sales for the weekend as a whole increased over 2011."
Last year, "Black Weekend" accounted for 8.6 percent of sales during the entire holiday season of November and December. Martin said the importance of a single shopping day such as Black Friday may be changing as retailers promote the holiday season earlier and expand promotions across more days.
"The Monday through Wednesday before Thanksgiving had foot traffic increases as well," Martin said in a statement. "This indicates that some retailers are turning 'Black Friday' into a week-long event, and more consumers are visiting stores earlier in the week."
Sears says the hottest items on Black Friday were "doorbuster" sales for tablets, big screen TVs, diamond jewelry and winter coats. TVs and tablets were big sellers at Walmart, which sold 1.3 million televisions between Thanksgiving night and Black Friday. The retail giant said laptops and digital cameras also topped sales figures.
Shoppers, however, didn't spend all their time in the electronics department. Walmart said shoppers snapped up 1.8 million towels, 1.3 million dolls and 250,000 bicycles during the first two days of the holiday shopping season.
While tech gadgets are a hot item this year, the non-profit organization Junior Achievement recommends parents and other family members invest in the future rather than a big screen TV or new gaming system, especially in the face of a recent Rand poll that showed more teens are saving for clothes than for college.
"Though Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals may still be plentiful, JA is encouraging other forms of giving this year to prepare teens for college, to be workforce ready and have a financially secure future," Junior Achievement of Southeast Texas said last week in a news release.
Make donations to teens' college funds, purchase savings bonds in teens' names, or give gifts essential for college, like laptops, printers or USB drives
"The holiday season is an opportunity to spend time with loved ones," said Rick Franke of JA of Southeast Texas. "It's also the perfect opportunity to talk to teens about the tools they need to be successful as they embark on their education, careers and build their own memories with family and friends."
MICHELLE GROENKE || United Press International