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So-so Black Friday sales: Why didn't people shop as much as expected?

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The first big weekend of the holiday shopping season could be characterized more as "ho-hum" than a jolly "ho, ho, ho" by the nation's retail trade.

Forbes magazine reports the National Retail Federation estimated 133.7 million Americans went shopping this weekend, below the 140.1 million it was expecting and down 5 percent from last year.

The New York Times reported that earlier openings of many retailers on Thanksgiving did not appear to goose sales. Estimates by the NRF found sales, both in stores and online, dropped by 11 percent compared to 2013, with shoppers spending an average of $380.95 over the four days, 6.4 percent less than the $407.02 they spent last year.

Why the slow start?

The Associated Press reports Minnesota retailers suspect early deals at stores and on the Web may have cut into Black Friday sales, and caused fewer shoppers to visit stores.

"The post-Thanksgiving shopping at St. Paul big box stores was less frenzied than in years past," the AP noted, reporting that Target shoppers there experienced half-empty parking lots and easy access to checkout lanes.

Forbes noted that while both Minneapolis-based Target and rival Wal-Mart reported record online sales for Thanksgiving, it didn't translate to shoppers in stores.

The New York Times story offered some theories. The lower sales could mean that “there are a significant number of Americans out there for whom the recession is not yet over,” according to the NRF's Shay. But a stronger economy could also mean that shoppers did not feel compelled to seek out rock-bottom Black Friday deals, he said.

Or it could be that the ever-earlier start to Black Friday deals means many consumers have done their shopping and stayed home during the Thanksgiving weekend.

MOA the exception

The Pioneer Press reports the Mall of America was bucking that trend.

The story said the nation's largest shopping mall counted about 258,800 people visiting between Thanksgiving night and 6 p.m. Friday, which sets the megamall up to shatter its all-time traffic record.

"It was really great, because there were no huge masses of crowds," MOA spokeswoman Sarah Schmidt said Friday. "It was a big crowd, but it was kind of spread out through the evening."

But not all hope is lost. The retail federation's CEO Matt Shay said his organizations remained confident overall sales would increase by 4.1 percent for the holiday season – despite the underwhelming Thanksgiving shopping week.

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