By Nandita Bose and Nathan Layne
CHICAGO/PITTSBURGH (Reuters) - America's annual Black Friday shopping extravaganza was short on fireworks this year as U.S. retailers' discounts on electronics, clothing and other holiday gifts failed to draw big crowds to stores and shopping malls.
Major retail stocks including Best Buy and Wal-Mart closed lower while Target, picked out by one analyst for its promotion strategy, saw its shares tick up.
Bargain hunters found relatively little competition compared with previous years. Some had already shopped Thursday evening, reflecting a new normal of U.S. holiday shopping, where stores open up with deals on Thanksgiving itself, rather than waiting until Black Friday.
Retailers "have taken the sense of urgency out for consumers by spreading their promotions throughout the year and what we are seeing is a result of that," said Jeff Simpson, director of the retail practice at Deloitte. Traffic in stores was light on Friday, while Thursday missed his expectations, he said.
As much as 20 percent of holiday shopping is expected to be done over the Thanksgiving weekend this year, analysts said. But the four days are not considered a strong indicator for the entire season. A slow start last year led to deeper promotions and a shopping rush in the final ten days of December.
Steve Bratspies, chief merchandising officer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc <WMT.N>, told Reuters he was not surprised that a store would see thinner crowds on Friday after it kicked off Black Friday deals on Thursday night.
Suntrust Robinson Humphrey analysts were more blunt, calling Thursday a "bust". "Members of our team who went to the malls first had no problem finding parking or navigating stores," he wrote in a note.
The Macy's store at Water Tower Place mall on a rainy Chicago morning saw thin crowds in the early hours of Friday. Later in the morning, more than 1,000 protesters clogged Chicago's Magnificent Mile shopping corridor.
Nia Darrell, a 23-year-old student, was shopping for coats and handbags at the store with two friends.
"I shopped online yesterday and picked up most of what I wanted," she said." I'm out because Black Friday is more like a tradition, but the discounts are similar even online this year."
While Black Friday may be losing some appeal in the United States, British shoppers have taken to the concept enthusiastically, with reports of large crowds at big stores and malls in the UK.
Shares of Target Corp <TGT.N> gained 0.4 percent, but J.C. Penney <JCP.N> wad down 0.7 percent, and Macy's and Best Buy lost about 1 percent. Wal-Mart dipped 0.6 percent, while Amazon.com Inc <AMZN.O> was down 0.3 percent.
A broad retail index <.DJUSGT> was down 0.15 percent in abbreviated trading.
Traffic was better at some retailers. Analysts at Cowen & Co said Target stood out with its "innovative promotions," and teen retailer American Eagle Outfitters Inc <AEO.N> saw more traffic due to store-wide discounts of 40 percent.
ONLINE SALES RISE
Shoppers in the United States spent $822 million online between midnight and 11 am ET, a 15-percent increase from 2014 but lower than the expected growth of 19 percent, according to the Adobe Digital Index, which tracked 180 million visits to over 4,500 U.S. retail sites. On Thanksgiving Day, online sales rose 22 percent from midnight to 5 pm ET.
Many stores around the country were full on Thanksgiving evening. Media showed brawling shoppers at a packed Kentucky mall Thursday, forcing a police officer to break up the fight.
Wal-Mart worker group 'Our Wal-Mart' said 1,400 workers planned to fast and protest around the country for better wages, but there was no indication that would hurt sales.
Early Black Friday discounts included $700 off a 60-inch Samsung television at Best Buy <BBY.N> for $799.99, 20 percent off a $75 purchase at Target, and a Kindle for $49.99 on Amazon.com.
The National Retail Federation is expecting holiday sales to rise 3.7 percent, slower than last year's 4.1 percent growth rate, due to stagnant wages and sluggish job growth.
Jorgette Clark, 27, said her budget would probably be lower this year because her husband works in the energy industry.
"I feel like we scaled back this year. Our husbands work in the oil fields... It's probably a smaller Christmas this year."
(Additional reporting by Kylie Gumpert in New York, Writing by Nandita Bose in Chicago; Editing by Nick Zieminski)