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© Agence France-Presse/Michael Nagle
Bargain hunters shop for discounted merchandise at Macy's on 'Black Friday' in New York City. US retail sales on Black Friday hit a new record for the start of the holiday shopping season that follows Thanksgiving, according to early estimates.
Americans shrugged off economic gloom to post record holiday weekend sales of $11.4 billion according to estimates, as shoppers took advantage of deep pre-Christmas discounts.

Sales over the weekend's vitally important Thanksgiving holiday weekend were up 6.6 percent compared to last year, marking the biggest dollar amount ever spent on Black Friday, the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season, said Chicago-based research firm ShopperTrak.

Meanwhile, Internet sales also jumped for the year, according to the group IBM Smarter Commerce which reported a whopping 39.3-percent increase in online Thanksgiving spending.

It added that US shoppers have set the stage for 24.3-percent online growth on Black Friday compared to the same period last year.

The in-store figures were the largest year-on-year gain since an 8.3 percent increase in sales between 2006 and 2007, said ShopperTrak.

Foot traffic in stores was up 5.1 percent compared to Black Friday 2010.

"Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year and the traditional start to the holiday shopping season," said ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin.

"Despite our sluggish economy, shoppers proved they are looking for value and ready to buy if given a good customer experience."

But the company warned: "Still, it's just one day. It remains to be seen whether consumers will sustain this behavior through the holiday shopping season."

The increase in sales appeared to be far higher than the inflation rate, which eased to 3.5 percent in October as compared with a year ago, according to US Labor Department data.

Shoppers mobbed malls and went online in droves to snap up bargains late Thursday, through the night and into Friday -- an annual sales ritual that marks the start to the end-of-year shopping season relied on by many retailers.

The stampede for deeply discounted goods was fed by aggressive marketing, with many stores this year moving up their sales launches to intrude on Thursday's Thanksgiving holiday, then followed by all-night service into Friday.

The orgy of consumption was marred by a number of isolated violent incidents, including a woman who pepper-sprayed other Black Friday shoppers at a Los Angeles-area Wal-Mart, along with several shootings at stores across the country.

Sears opened Thanksgiving morning -- traditionally a time when families gather for quiet get-togethers -- and Toys "R" Us opened at 9:00 pm Thursday.

Wal-Mart's big discount rival Target upset some employees by opening doors at midnight on Thanksgiving instead of the usual early bird time of 5:00 am Friday.

Market analysis firm SpendingPulse said there were potentially more than $20 billion in sales up for grabs.

The buying spree continues throughout the weekend and into Cyber Monday, when retailers offer hot deals online following the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

The National Retail Federation was due to publish its first Black Friday sales estimates on Sunday.

John Squire, chief strategy officer at IBM Smarter Commerce, said this year "marked Thanksgiving's emergence as the first big spending day of the 2011 holiday season with a record number of consumers shifting their focus from turkey to tablets and the search for the best deals."

The momentum "continued into Black Friday where the big winners were those retailers that delivered a smarter commerce experience with compelling, relevant deals that people could easily access from their channel of choice," he added.

Online seller Buy.com, which offers consumers links to more than 4,000 top retailers, said sales over the last two days grew by double digits year-over-year, but did not provide a specific figure.

"Our initial holiday results point to a strong start of the season, as consumers responded favorably to our expanded selection of products and our newest initiatives we put in place to create an even more wallet-friendly shopping experience," noted Neel Grover, president and CEO of Buy.com.