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Black Friday boom: Perfect start to promising holiday shopping season?

A record 226 million shoppers visited stores and websites over Black Friday weekend, up from 212 million last year. But the mood remains one of caution and strategic buying for the rest of the holiday season.

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Target customer Nancy, last name not given, waits with televisions purchased at a Target Store in Colma, Calif., on Black Friday. The American holiday shopping season began in earnest Friday as stores opened their doors at midnight – a few hours earlier than they normally do on the most anticipated shopping day of the year.

Jeff Chiu/AP

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The heavy retail promotions of Cyber Monday and Black Friday are behind us, but make no mistake: That was just the start of the holiday shopping season.

For all the hype about the days following Thanksgiving, some of the busiest shopping days of the year will come in December. And things like discounts, promotional coupons, and free shipping will continue to be dangled out there by retailers.

A sign of the times: On Cyber Monday this week, Toys "R" Us showed lots of its discounts continuing through Dec. 3.

"We're seeing dozens of outstanding store-wide discounts that feature free shipping once you hit the minimum spend," says Brent Shelton of FatWallet.com, a website designed for consumers to find shopping deals, in an e-mail. Users of the FatWallet website can often get additional cash-back rewards on the purchases, he adds.

And many stores are offering cash back when you buy a gift card (here's a link via FatWallet).

To make the most of available deals, retailing analysts say several other tactics help: 

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The promotions are all part of an intricate dance between retailers and consumers. Stores want to make profits, but they're also competing fiercely with one another for the business of wary and deal-savvy shoppers. The economy has yet to stage a strong recovery from the recession that ended in 2009, leaving many people worried about job security and high debt loads.

By early reports, the post-Thanksgiving kick-off to holiday-season shopping was strong.

IBM Smarter Commerce, a tracking firm for online commerce, says online sales shot up 18 percent on Cyber Monday, compared to a year ago.

And a National Retail Federation survey conducted by BIGresearch found that a record 226 million shoppers visited stores and websites over Black Friday weekend, up from 212 million last year. Even before Cyber Monday's online promotions, some 38 percent of total weekend spending came from online purchases.

This doesn't mean consumers will spend that strongly throughout the next few weeks, however. Economists and consumer experts say the mood remains one of caution and strategic buying when prices seem best.

"We still don't have an economy or a job market that's inspiring the type of confidence people need to really let loose," Greg McBride of Bankrate.com said in a blog post on Monday. "Wages have been stagnant and household costs have continued to inch higher, so there's less discretionary spending power."

An index of consumer confidence rose strongly in November, the Conference Board reported Tuesday, suggesting that consumers have lost some of their summer gloom just in time for the holiday season.

The Retail Federation has forecast overall sales this season, as Christmas comes and goes, will be up a modest 2.8 percent from last year.

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