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Shoppers rush through the doors as Macy’s opens for Black Friday.

Peter Foley/Bloomberg

Online sales jumped more than 20 per cent in the U.S. at the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season as the growing use of tablet computers fuelled "couch commerce".

Black Friday internet sales climbed 26 per cent on a year ago, to $1-billion (U.S.), according to ComScore, while IBM, using a different methodology, recorded a 21 per cent increase.

The figures came as the U.S. retail federation reported stronger sales across all forms of retail than many analysts had expected, suggesting that improvements in the job and stock markets could be boosting spending.

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The most visited retail site on Friday was Inc., the dominant internet-only retailer, but next in the top five were the websites of three bricks-and-mortar stores – Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Best Buy Co. Inc. and Target Corp. – followed by Apple Inc., according to ComScore.

Black Friday is the busiest shopping day of the year but Capital Economics research has shown it is not a reliable indicator of total holiday season spending, which can account for 20-40 per cent of retailers' annual sales.

The ease of shopping on tablet computers encouraged more so-called "couch commerce", with purchases on mobile devices accounting for 16 per cent of all online transactions and iPads alone making up 10 per cent, IBM said.

But although more people took to the internet, the average spend per person fell 4.7 per cent to $181 and the average number of purchases fell 12 per cent to 5.6, according to IBM.

The National Retail Federation said total retail sales rose 13 per cent from last year to $59-billion over the four days from Thanksgiving to Sunday.

Although the 139 million people who shopped were 8 million more than last year, they were fewer than the NRF's forecast of 147 million.

After the Thanksgiving weekend, U.S. retailers typically offer a blizzard of online discounts on what has come to be known as Cyber Monday, but its relevance has been diluted by the decision of many to start unveiling deals last week. Amazon began last Monday.

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To counter the trend of consumers shopping online during Thanksgiving on Thursday, several retailers – including Wal-Mart and Target – opened their stores earlier than ever with big discounts on Thursday night.

The decision to open early pulled shopping trips forward, resulting in sales at bricks-and-mortar stores on Black Friday falling 1.8 per cent from a year ago to $11.2-billion, according to separate estimates from ShopperTrak – the first drop since 2008.

But consistent with the NRF, Bill Martin, ShopperTrak's founder, said that sales on Thursday and Friday combined would exceed last year's figure, although specific data for Thursday were not yet available.

"You really saw savvy shopping," said Jay Henderson, strategy director at IBM's Smarter Commerce division, noting that consumers had scoured carefully for the best discounts.

He said bricks-and-mortar retailers were "working hard to combine what they do in-store with what they do online".

Walmart, which is trying to stop losing business to Amazon, offered early access to discounts for consumers who downloaded its mobile app, liked it on Facebook or signed up for email alerts.

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