Black Friday sales were vigorous, retailers report. But shoppers are cautious as the US economy struggles to recover, likely to buy what they need and not just what they want. Black Friday’s shopping spree sent consumers home with cart-loads of bargains — everything from flat-screen TVs to diamond-studded earrings to Zhu Zhu pets. (The battery-operated toy hamster is particularly popular). m While some Americans may have been observing the anti-consumerist event known as “Buy Nothing Day” — it’s hard to track that trend among people who stay home with families or go for a nice, vigorous postprandial hike rather than exercise their credit cards — initial indications are that all the pre-Thanksgiving hype and hoopla paid off for retailers this year. “There were bargain-hungry shoppers out there, and retailers really did pull out all the stops for people,” National Retail Federation spokesperson Kathy Grannis told Time. For one thing, big-box stores are opening earlier and earlier — in some cases, midnight rather than the traditional 6 a.m. Walmart stores were open on Thanksgiving, and some of the big chains were advertising online specials before that on limited numbers of attractive items as a way of enticing early shoppers. Initial indications show the numbers up over last year, at least somewhat. The economy is a factor. Some of the shock from last year’s financial crisis may have worn off a bit. Also, with high unemployment and underemployment a persistent problem, people are especially eager to look for discounted prices on those things they think they need and can afford. More than 5,000 people were at Macy’s Herald Square store in New York early Friday, slightly more than last year, the Associated Press reports. “Among the most popular items were Tommy Hilfiger $99 bomber jackets, marked down from $450,” according to the AP. Still, many consumers — though they joined the predawn lines looking for good deals on netbook computers and GPS devices — are very aware of an economy that can feel personally precarious. “I’m not stupid enough to think I couldn’t lose my job tomorrow,” Barbara Martin told the Washington Post as she waited outside a Best Buy store in Rockville, Md. “We’re going to cut back on spending this year for the holidays by about 75 percent.” Retailers are observing this trend in the psychology of shopping too. “The customer this year is very researched and very methodical,” James Fielding, president of Walt Disney Co.’s Disney Stores, told the Wall Street Journal. “I don’t think there’s a lot of impulse shopping going on. People are just being realistic about their personal situation and the economy.” Meanwhile, the Internet has changed the way Americans shop too — especially since “Cyber Monday” first was declared in 2005. “Between 2005 and 2008, Cyber Monday sales increased 74 percent, beating the 60 percent revenue increase for other days that have been online sales record-holders for the holiday season,” Mark Guarino reported in the Monitor. “As Internet retailers boost special promotions, free shipping, and outreach on Cyber Monday, the gap could close further in coming years.” Analysts also report increased weekend activity on PayPal and eBay. Between now and the end of the year, the National Retail Federation expects that holiday sales will have dropped for the second year in a row — about one percent compared to last year, although not as much as the 3.4 percent slide in 2008.