Economic worries about jobs were still apparent as shoppers stuck to their lists and focused on practical and small-ticket items for themselves and for their loved ones, resulting in a mildly encouraging start to the season.
Online sales on Thursday and Friday, however, rose 11 percent to $913 million, according to data released Sunday by comScore, an Internet research firm.
According to preliminary figures released Saturday by ShopperTrak, a research firm that tracks more than 50,000 outlets, sales rose 0.5 percent to $10.66 billion Friday, compared with a year ago. That was on top of a 3 percent increase last year.
The National Retail Federation trade group said Sunday it is sticking to its forecast for holiday sales to decline 1 percent from last year.
The question now is whether merchants will be able to keep customers coming back for the rest of the season.
A year after suffering the biggest sales decline in four decades, the nation's merchants pulled out all the stops in stores and online to keep the momentum going for the holiday weekend, further blurring the lines between their Web-based and land-based businesses.
Major merchants including J.C. Penney Co. and Sears Holdings Corp., which operates Kmart and Sears, broke new ground this year by making many of their early morning Black Friday specials available on their Web sites at the same time.
Marketing gurus have started calling the season a "Twitter Christmas" as merchants have been tweeting deals and offering previews of discounts on Facebook pages.
Sears spokesman Tom Aiello noted Sunday that since Wednesday, the chain has sent out a few dozen tweets to inform customers of bargains for the weekend and for the Monday after Thanksgiving, which is heavily promoted as Cyber Monday but could lose some of it steam this year.
"Forget Black Friday for bricks and Cyber Monday for clicks -- this year it's all about making it easy for customers to satisfy their shopping fix ... wherever and whenever," said John Long, a retail strategist at Kurt Salmon Associates.
Long, however, noted that "we're still seeing cautious spending. The pie isn't increasing whether you decide to buy in the stores or online."
Laura Gurski, a partner in the retail practice at A.T. Kearney, a global management consultant, described the start as "encouraging" and noted that shoppers have more "confidence in what they're buying" because retailers are communicating better through social media in addition to traditional marketing.
She believes the weekend's results offered signals that consumers, many of whom had cut spending all year to bare-bones necessities, had saved up for the holidays and were opening their wallets -- even if just a little.
Shoppers' cautious mood was evident.
Allentown, Pa. resident Jamie Sandrock, 27, who was visiting New York City on Saturday and was outside toy store FAO Schwarz, said she got up at 7 a.m. Friday and took advantage of online deals on Amazon.com, American Eagle Outfitters and Sephora.
That's a big change from the Black Fridays of years past, when Sandrock would get up at 3:30 a.m. to head to Target or Best Buy.
"Last year, I was part of the stampede," she said. "This year, I didn't have to shower. I didn't have to get dressed. All I had to do was click."
But Sandrock, who has been trying to find a job in nursing since she graduated from college in May, said she's slashing her holiday spending to $350 from last year's $500.
After losing his job in the insurance industry earlier this year, Charles Tompkins, 48, who was at the Freehold, N.J., Raceway Mall on Saturday, said he'll be spending "a lot less" this year than he did in 2008.
"My daughter is in college, so my wife will get her clothes, shoes, stuff like that. In years past, my gift to her probably would have been to take her to a Broadway show, but this year she knows her old dad can't swing that," Tompkins said.
Nevertheless, overall reports Sunday from malls and stores were somewhat comforting and different from last year when stores had a decent Black Friday before sales tanked the rest of the weekend and season.
The Mall of America in Minneapolis, saw 325,000 visitors Friday and Saturday, the most in 17 years. Spokeswoman Bridget Jewell said traffic remained steady throughout the weekend and said she's fairly confident that weekend sales will be up from last year.
Taubman Centers, which operates 24 malls nationwide, said sales Friday were up anywhere from mid-single digits to double-digit increases compared with a year ago. On Saturday, sales were anywhere from unchanged to up slightly.
Shoppers bought about half the items sold for themselves, she said, but the buying was focused on basics like denim, fleece jackets and boots, she said. Electronics remained hot throughout the weekend.
A more complete sales picture won't be known until Thursday, when the nation's retailers report November sales.