If consumers do start to fade, it will be another blow to the economy, which has already been hit hard by the decline in housing prices, the stuttering stock market, and rising unemployment.
"This could be the worst holiday period since 1982, when we were coming out a recession," says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com. "That means the first half of 2009 will be very, very tough."
Retailers count on a big pickup in sales during the holidays to help them the following year.
"Take Macy's. When their sales aren't so strong, they won't hire as many people next year, or expand as much or buy as much merchandise," explains Mr. Feinberg of Purdue. "There is a longer-term negative effect than simply what will happen this quarter."
On Friday, the National Retail Federation tried to remain positive about the outlook. It still expects a 2.2 percent increase in holiday spending over last year, says Scott Krugman, a spokesman for NRF. Before any lowering of that projection, he says, "we want to see how Black Friday plays out and the first half of the [holiday shopping] season."
Retail activity was busiest in the South, where it was up 3.4 percent, and in the Midwest, up 3 percent, according to ShopperTrak. The slower areas, ShopperTrak said, were the Northeast, up 2.6 percent, and the West, up 2.7 percent.
"Under these circumstances, to start off the season in this fashion is truly amazing and is a testament to the resiliency of the American consumer, and undeniably proves a willingness to spend," Bill Martin, ShopperTrak's cofounder, added in a statement.