Domingo Catalan powered through the Thanksgiving night crowds to get his children toys. He methodically checked all the boxes on his relatives' wish lists on Black Friday. And before he goes to work as a data analyst for a government contractor on Cyber Monday, he expects to look for online deals to have shipped to his brother's family in Germany.
So whom was Catalan, a Crofton resident, shopping for on Sunday morning at Bass Pro Shops at Arundel Mills?
"Me," he grinned, pausing to jerk his thumb toward his chest as he put an Under Armour winter jacket and fishing gear into the back of his Ford pick-up truck.
Catalan was one of an estimated 247 million shoppers who made the retail rounds in person and online during Black Friday weekend, an increase of 9.2 percent over last year, according to the National Retail Federation. The average holiday shopper spent $423 during the four-day period, $25 more than in 2011. Total spending reached an estimated $59.1 billion, a 13 percent increase.
"Everyone feels bullish," said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the retail federation. "The momentum is going to continue."
Catalan was one of a growing number of shoppers who made sure to do something nice for themselves during the four-day buying frenzy that kicks off the holiday season. The federation survey noted that nearly 60 percent of consumers will "self-gift" compared with 50 percent in 2004.
This year's holiday season began as people pushed back from the Thanksgiving dinner table and lurched for the big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Toys 'R' Us. Turkey Day blurred into Black Friday and Small Business Saturday before shoppers kept going on an as-yet-unnamed Sunday.
"What we're seeing is a five-day weekend that starts on Thursday and ends on Monday," Shay said.
Cyber Monday will be followed on Dec. 10 by another online retail rush, Green Monday, and then Free Shipping Day on Dec. 17.
No matter what you call it, Saturday was very good for Reisterstown comic book shop owner Marc Nathan.
"We had a great day. We saw a lot of people we haven't seen before and we saw a lot of children," said Nathan, owner of Cards, Comics and Collectibles. "We took out print ads, we used email, we used direct mail. We used everything in our arsenal and we reached them."
Without giving away hard numbers, Nathan said that by aggressively marketing his wares and bringing in nationally known cartoonists for signings, his 28-year-old business is putting up big numbers this holiday season.
"We're approaching our all-time record in 1996-97 and I think we'll break it," he said. "The fact that it worked was just as rewarding as the sales numbers. It shows we did something smart."
National retailers experienced the same euphoria on Thanksgiving day as people took advantage of pre-Black Friday bargains. In-store sales on Thursday increased 71 percent, according to Chase Paymentech, a top credit-card processor.
But that early boost may have come at a price for in-store shopping on Black Friday, according to ShopperTrak, which monitors patterns. Compared to last year, retail foot traffic rose 3.5 percent, to more than 307.67 million store visits. Retail sales decreased 1.8 percent, with shoppers spending an estimated $11.2 billion.
The picture was brighter for online sales for both brick-and-mortar stores and Web-based retailers. Ebay said that the volume of mobile transactions on Black Friday was up 153 percent and its subsidiary, PayPal, experienced a tripling of volume compared with 2011.
IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark said nearly one-quarter of Black Friday consumers used a mobile device to access a retailer's site, up from 9.8 percent last year.
Shay said retailers are taking notice.
"We cannot overstate the impact mobile is having this year," he said. "Mobile growth is exponential on tablets and smart phones."
As a result, Shay said, the vast majority of retailers are pacing themselves, holding back deals for Cyber Monday to take advantage of the estimated 129 million shoppers who will be online, up 7 million from a year ago. Adobe Systems Inc. is predicting that online retail sales will reach $2 billion, an 18 percent increase over last year.
Shawn DuBravac, chief economist for the Consumer Electronics Association, said he expected "a much stronger push and presence" by retailers next year as marketing experiments on social media sites such as Twitter and Foursquare become the norm.
Big-box stores weren't going down without a fight, however. Some retailers have agreed to match prices with some of their Internet competitors, and pushed bundled packages of a product and a gift card to ensure return business, DuBravac said.
The retail federation survey showed total spending on gift cards will reach $28.79 billion, with 81.1 percent of shoppers indicating that they will purchase at least one card.
Retailers will get a break this year on two fronts. There are five weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas, one more than in the past couple of years.
Over the past three years, Americans have paid down their debts to the tune of $636 billion, according the federal government. Gasoline, electricity and natural gas prices are decreasing.
Consumer confidence is on the rise, and those surveyed this month by the Credit Union National Association and the Consumer Federation of America said they are more willing to open their wallets. Twelve percent of those polled said they expected to spend more, the highest level since 15 percent in 2007; 38 percent said they would spend less.
But at least part of the Black Friday mystique may be a bit of smoke and mirrors.
A study of the 2011 holiday season by the price-tracking company ShopAdvisor showed that Black Friday was no bargain. Of the 252 toys monitored over the 54 days from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24, retailers on the Friday after Thanksgiving had slightly less than half on sale and 24 percent were priced above their initial holiday season mark.
The best day to shop for toys? The company picked Dec. 29, when 17 percent of all the toys on its 2011 watch list were marked down 30 percent from their pre-Black Friday prices.