"It's pretty clear that in the current environment, customers expect promotions," Shay said. "Absent promotions, they're not really spending."
Take Tuesday Trasvina, 37, who said she's been bombarded with holiday discounts since early November. Trasvina, a marketing coordinator, plans to spend $500 on holiday gifts, about a quarter of what she spent last year.
"They've been stretching out this Black Friday thing so long," said Trasvina, who was shopping with her husband on Friday at a Target store in Portland, Ore. "I just think the over-commercialization of the holiday has gotten to us."
At least a dozen major retailers — most of them for the first time — opened on Thanksgiving instead of on Black Friday, which is typically the biggest shopping day of the year. Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and other retailers said on Friday that Thanksgiving crowds were strong.
But the early start appeared to pull sales forward. Black Friday sales fell 13.2 percent from the previous year to $9.74 billion, according to Chicago-based technology firm ShopperTrak. But combined spending over Thanksgiving and Black Friday rose 2.3 percent to $12.3 billion compared with a year ago.
A Kmart store in New York City that opened at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving and stayed open for 41 hour straight was packed on the holiday. Clothing was marked down 30 percent to 50 percent.
Adriana Tavaraz, 51, headed there at about 4 p.m. and spent $105 on ornaments, Santa hats and other holiday decor. She saved about 50 percent.
But it's not likely Tavaraz will be back in stores too many more times this season. Money is tight this year because of rising costs for food and rent, and Tavaraz already spent much of her $200 holiday budget.
"Nowadays, you have to think about what you spend," she said. "You have to think about tomorrow."
Sara Sell in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.
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