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Shoppers welcome holiday sales by buying early, often — and online

Shoppers swooped into stores in droves on Thanksgiving weekend, topping last year’s sales, as more retailers opened their doors earlier than ever on Thursday, luring bargain hunters away from eating another plate of turkey.

And now Cyber Monday is expected to set a record for online shopping this year, for those who prefer the Internet to the mall.

Spending per shopper nationwide averaged $423 — $25 more than last year — from Thursday to Sunday, while total spending increased nearly 13 percent, to an estimated $59.1 billion, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.

“I think the only way to describe the Thanksgiving openings is to call it a huge win,” said Matthew Shay, the trade group’s president and chief executive. Shopping, he said, “has really become an extension of the day’s festivities.”

South Florida was no exception, as a flurry of stores, as well as several malls, opened on Thanksgiving. Thursday has seemingly become the new Black Thursday, taking a bite out of the old-fashioned kickoff day of the holiday, Black Friday.

“We had an excellent weekend,” said Humberto Maldonado, director of marketing for Dadeland Mall, which opened at midnight on Thursday. Sales figures are not yet in, but the overall trend was up from last year, he said Monday.

“It was really busy from midnight to 5 a.m., then it slowed, and picked up again at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m., and stayed busy all day on Friday,” Maldonado said.

Nationwide, about 35 million people visited stores and shopping websites Thursday, up from 29 million last year. More than double that number — 89 million, up from 86 million — shopped on Black Friday.

“There were more people shopping every single day of the weekend,” Shay said.

Topping off the weekend, Cyber Monday’s early results, tabulated at 3 p.m. Monday, showed that online shopping was up a whopping 25.6 percent compared with the same time period a year ago, according to figures by IBM Benchmark.

Nationwide, most of the weekend’s shoppers — roughly 58 percent — bought clothing and accessories. Another 38 percent bought electronics and 35 percent shelled out for toys, National Retail Federation figures show.

Retailers made an effort to lure people in, with updated mobile shopping applications for smartphones and tablets, and expanded shipping and layaway options.

Still, it remains to be seen whether increased sales over the Thanksgiving weekend will translate to higher sales throughout the holiday shopping season. Analysts have been predicting mediocre sales this year, nationwide, as shoppers remain uncertain about the broader economy. Overall holiday sales are expected to increase 4.1 percent from 2011, compared with sales growth of 5.6 percent last year, the National Retail Federation said.

However, Florida is expected to beat those figures. Buoyed in large part by tourists and snowbirds, the Florida Retail Federation is forecasting a 5.3 percent gain this year over last, to $58 billion, marking the highest percentage growth predicted since the recession. Pre-recession, retail sales peaked at $54.3 billion in 2006.

Christian Cutillo, 26, of Weston, hit Walmart, then Sears, Target and Old Navy after eating Thanksgiving dinner.

She began at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and by 3 a.m. Friday she had finished shopping for all 15 people on her list, mostly buying clothing and toys.

“I am all done,” said Cutillo, a lawyer. “One night and I am done.”

Yet while Black Friday (so named because it was traditionally when stores’ profit for the year went into the black) is best known for holiday shopping, it is actually not the heaviest shopping day, said Rick McAllister, president and chief executive of the Florida Retail Federation. That distinction belongs to Christmas Eve, he said.

Overall, Americans are expected to spend an average of about $750 each this holiday season, propelled in part by stronger consumer confidence. More Americans this month said the U.S. economy will improve than at any time in the past decade, according to the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index. The share of households saying it would get better rose to 37 percent, the highest since March 2002. A year ago, the measure showed a record number of consumers said it was a bad time to spend.

Nationwide, a rebound in housing and the job market, along with a drop in household debt, has also led additional consumers to say they’ll buy more this holiday, according to a survey this month by the Credit Union National Association and the Consumer Federation of America. Of those polled, 12 percent said they would boost spending, the highest level since 15 percent in 2007, while 38 percent said they would spend less.

Much of the weekend’s shopping took place online, as consumers logged on to take advantage of Internet-only specials beginning early Thursday morning. The average shopper spent more than $172 online over the weekend, which made up about 41 percent of the total weekend spending. That’s up from 38 percent last year.

“There is no question that online is a real bright spot in the retail industry,” Shay said. “For the first time, more than half of those who shopped this weekend said they shopped online.”

According to comScore, which tracks online spending, online sales rose 26 percent to $1.04 billion on Black Friday compared with a year ago. On Thanksgiving, online sales rose 32 percent from last year to $633 million. And online sales on Black Friday were up 26 percent from the same day last year to $1.042 billion. It was the first time online sales on Black Friday surpassed $1 billion.

As retailers have ramped up deals, it’s estimated that this year’s Cyber Monday will be the biggest online shopping day of the year for the third year in a row. Coined in 2005 by a shopping trade group that noticed that online sales spiked on the Monday following Thanksgiving, Cyber Monday joins Black Friday and Small Business Saturday as days that stores are counting on to jumpstart the holiday shopping season.

Miami Herald writer Paradise Afshar contributed to this report, which was supplemented with material from The Washington Post, Associated Press and Bloomberg News.