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UPDATE 1-US retailers enjoy strong start to shopping season

(Recasts with sales estimate from ShopperTrak)

CHICAGO, Nov 24 (Reuters) - The lure of bargains trumped economic concerns at the start of the holiday shopping season as retailers logged sales that were significantly stronger than a year ago, a customer traffic counter said on Saturday.

Sales rose 8.3 percent on “Black Friday” -- the first official day of the U.S. holiday shopping season -- compared with the same day a year ago, according to the National Retail Sales Estimate from ShopperTrak.

The company estimated sales on Friday totaled $10.3 billion.

Black Friday sales typically account for between 4.5 and 5 percent of all holiday sales, ShopperTrak said.

The sales spike was evidence that customers are willing to spend despite mounting worries about a slumping housing market, a credit crunch and soaring fuel prices. Experts say those concerns still may dampen the season overall.

“Although retailers need to remain cautious, the Black Friday outpouring should have them breathing a sigh of relief, and they will be paying close attention to see if consumers continue this strong shopping pace throughout the holiday season,” said Bill Martin, ShopperTrak’s co-founder.

While shoppers were on the lookout for giveaways and discounts, investors were eager for any signs of consumer strength or weakness.

Judging by the lines outside Sears SHLD.O stores on Friday, consumers were especially eager, said John Ford, regional manager at Sears Holdings in New York.

“It exceeded our expectations. We had more customers at opening yesterday than we had in prior years,” Ford said of the number of people waiting outside for the stores to open on Friday. “I would tell you it was 50 to 100 percent higher than it was in previous years.”

Ford declined to provide sales figures or to speculate on the shopping season in general.

SHOPPING AS SPORT

Most retailers and analysts have expressed cautious outlooks for this holiday season, as consumers retreat in the face of a softening economy.

A drop in weekly mortgage applications, signs of stress in the labor market and crude oil prices flirting with $100 per barrel this week added to the uncertain outlook for retailers.

The Reuters/University of Michigan consumer confidence reading for November was 76.1, down from 80.9 in October. Apart from the short-lived dip in sentiment that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it was the weakest since 1992.

“That traffic was up doesn’t surprise me,” said Candace Corlett, a principal with consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail. “Is that going change the financial prediction? I don’t think so.”

Corlett said retailers did a good job accommodating crowds, beefing up staff to assist shoppers and posting company representatives in parking lots to help customers with credit card applications.

But the larger number of shoppers was not necessarily an indication of strong sales, she said. Bargain hunting is always popular pastime, perhaps even more so during economic uncertainty.

“It’s become more of a shopping sport,” Corlett said.

Black Friday also saw an increase in traffic to Internet retail sites like eBay Inc EBAY.O and subsidiaries Shopping.com and Paypal.

Shopping.com said on Saturday its traffic to merchants increased 61 percent over last year’s Black Friday.

An increase in online shopping has somewhat defused the seasonal predictions based on Black Friday turnout to stores. The convenience of online shopping has caused an increase in shopping on Thanksgiving Day itself.

Shoppers are browsing and researching more on Friday, but buying more on the Monday following Thanksgiving, or “Cyber Monday,” eBay said in a statement. (Editing by Xavier Briand)

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