Black Friday sales were up 6.6 percent over last year and foot traffic in stores was up 5.1 percent, according to ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based research firm. The year-to-year spending increase was the greatest since 2007, the firm reported.
A survey commissioned by the National Retail Federation found that 226 million shoppers visited stores and websites over the weekend, up from 212 million last year. They spent an average of $398.62, up from $365.34 in 2010, the survey found.
Federation President Matthew Shay called the numbers a "promising sign for the economic recovery."
Online sales were also up, 39 percent on Thanksgiving and 24 percent on Friday, according to IBM's Coremetrics analysis.
The Black Friday spending increases were driven in part by a wave of national retailers that opened for business on Thanksgiving night rather than Friday morning.
"You're talking about five or six extra hours of shopping, so it would have to have driven a lot of the increase," said Steve Coulombe, a senior managing director at FTI Consulting, a Chicago-based business advisory firm.
FTI projected 3 percent sales growth for the entire holiday season. Coulombe said he wanted to see Monday's numbers covering the entire weekend before revisiting the projection but said Black Friday was promising.
"It indicates that there's demand, which is what people worry about with overall consumer confidence being where it is," he said. "People will take some comfort."
Though malls and major retailers in the Baltimore area did not have weekend sales numbers as of Sunday, managers said anecdotal evidence corroborated the reports of a strong Black Friday.
"We had 30 stores open at midnight, and pretty much all of them were ecstatic that they did it," said Jessica Benson, associate marketing manager for White Marsh Mall. "They all saw lines of 50-100 people at midnight, and there was steady traffic all night long."
Benson said that when she arrived at 2 a.m. Friday, the mall felt as lively as it would on a Saturday evening in the weeks before Christmas. The parking lot was filled to capacity at 4 a.m. "We take it as a pretty good indication that the holiday season is off to a good start," she said.
Not all analysts are convinced that the weekend numbers portend a strong holiday sales season.
"In the past, it was pretty standard that if you had a good Black Friday, you would have a good holiday season," said Wendy Moe, a marketing professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "But now, people are really planning for Black Friday, and it's not clear whether they're going to continue buying after that or if they're done."
Martin said ShopperTrak's early numbers for Saturday and Sunday indicated a possible softening of sales. "We do have to remember that Black Friday is only a single day in the holiday season," he said. "We've seen it go both ways as an indicator for the season. There really is no historical trend that predicts what happens where that's concerned."
NPD Group, a New York-based consumer information service, said its online survey of 3,300 people found that 56 percent who shopped on Black Friday did not plan to shop again on Saturday or Sunday.
"While record numbers took advantage of the door-buster deals and the early-hour deals, it appears that is where most of the action was," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD Group.
Retailers stirred excitement for Black Friday to an all-time high, Moe said, and many also pumped up revenues by opening for additional hours on Thanksgiving.