NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. retailers' controversial choice to kick off the U.S. holiday shopping season early, on Thanksgiving, may not pay off as much as they had hoped.

Eager to entice cautious consumers, especially with six fewer shopping days this year than in 2012, many retailers launched sales on Thursday's U.S. holiday, traditionally a day for family, friends and football games. Even Macy's Inc's flagship store in New York City opened then for the first time in its 155-year history, at 8 p.m.

Some U.S. shoppers played along, hitting the Internet and stores on Thanksgiving. But by late Friday morning, foot traffic looked a lot more like on a regular Saturday than the typical Black Friday frenzy that kicks off the holiday season.

"It's a lot less than I thought," said Alison Goodwin, from Horsham, Pennsylvania, who ventured to an area mall on Friday seeking gifts and maybe something for herself.

"It's like any weekend in December," Goodwin said.

While mall traffic appeared slower than last year, overall Black Friday online sales as of noon EST were up more than 7 percent from a year ago, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark. That came on top of the 19.7 percent increase on Thanksgiving Day, the firm said.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc U.S. Chief Executive Bill Simon said Thanksgiving visits to stores of the largest U.S. retailer surpassed last year's 22 million mark, and a swarm of online shoppers temporarily crashed its online site.

David Berman, founder of Durban Capital, a New York hedge fund that specializes in retail and consumer stocks, said U.S. shopping habits have permanently shifted with the exponential rise in online shopping, thanks largely to smart devices, notably Apple Inc's top-selling iPad.

Sales of big-ticket items like smartphones have helped mask weaknesses in traditional retail, he noted.

"By our calculations, half of U.S. publicly held retailer sales growth is coming from SAA (Samsung, Apple and Amazon)," said Berman.

TOOTH AND NAIL

Retailers often record the majority of their annual sales during the end-of-year holiday shopping season, and rely on discounts and marketing blitzes to try and grab a slice of spending estimated at some $600 billion annually.

The battle for the consumer dollar has been particularly intense in a year when taxeshave increased, unemployment has remained stubbornly high, and confidence has taken a hit from a recent government shutdown and uncertainty over the introduction of President Barack Obama's healthcare reforms.

Offsetting those negatives has been the wealth impact of a rise in home prices and a rallying stock market, though those are more likely to help the luxury end of retailing.

Even Apple is not immune to this year's heightened competition.

A new Ipsos/Reuters poll found that, among consumers thinking of buying a tablet, 21 percent favored Amazon Inc's Kindle Fire, followed by 19 percent for Apple's iPad and 17 percent for Samsung Electronics Co Ltd's Galaxy.

 

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