Last year, shoppers spent about $10.3 billion on the day after Thanksgiving, dubbed Black Friday because it was historically the sales-packed day when retailers would become profitable for the year.
While it isn't a predictor of overall holiday season sales, Black Friday is an important barometer of people's willingness to spend during the holidays. Last year, it was the biggest sales generator of the season.
But experts caution that this year's sales growth may be hard to sustain for the remainder of the holiday shopping season, which has 27 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas instead of the 32 last year.
Still, the sales boost was surprising in light of data showing shoppers are scaling back on discretionary spending because of a recession fueled by uncertainty related to turmoil in the world's financial and credit markets.
"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," ShopperTrak co-founder Bill Martin said in a statement.
Across the country, sales in the South were up 3.4 percent from last year while they climbed 2.6 percent in the Northeast as shoppers began scouring store aisles at midnight hoping to snag the best selection on early morning specials.
Patty Saal, 60, of Mogadore, Ohio, began her Black Friday shopping at 5 a.m. when she and her daughters went to a Sam's Club to purchase iPods.
"We're doing fine," she said.
Fifth grade teacher Daphna Stepen, 42, spent Black Friday hunting for deals inside Macy's and at the Limited Too clothing store and headed out again on Saturday. The Chicago resident said she was surprised by the discounts as well as how many coupons she'd received from stores, which helped her save even more money on already marked-down items.
"You can get almost 40 percent off stuff if you work the coupons," she said.
Separately on Saturday, J.C. Penney Co. Inc. said business was strong in its sites across the country as customers responded to sales. Some of the department store's best sellers were smaller electronic gadgets and practical gifts, such as sweaters, boots, coats and luggage.
But the chain said it wouldn't provide specific sales figures.
"In light of the challenging and volatile economic climate, and shifts in this year's retail calendar, we don't believe that reporting sales data for any one day (or weekend), including Black Friday, would provide a meaningful barometer of our business," the Plano, Texas company said in a statement released Saturday afternoon.
AP Business Writer Emily Fredrix contributed to this report from Aurora, Ohio.