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Black Friday liveblog: Online deals or brick-and-mortar sales?

Sales tax may be hurting Amazon's bottom line, but overseas, online sales have been booming on similar shopping holidays.

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The National Retail Federation predicts holiday sales will increase 4.1 percent this year to $586.1 billion. Actual holiday sales in 2011 grew 5.6 percent, better than the 10-year average annual growth rate of 3.5 percent. Additionally, shop.org expected online holiday sales to grow 12 percent over last holiday season to as much as $96 billion. To prepare for the potential uptick in sales, retailers are expected to hire between 585,000 and 625,000 seasonal workers this holiday season, comparable to the 607,500 seasonal employees they hired last year.

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All eyes are focused on U.S. consumers this holiday season, because businesses are sitting on the sidelines, awaiting the outcome of the "fiscal cliff" negotiations; and government spending is off the table, as debt and deficit reduction have taken center stage. Not to put too much pressure on consumers, but it is also likely that the areas affected by Sandy will need the rest of the country to pick up the slack, as the storm's recovery process continues. Retail sales fell in October by the steepest amount since June, hurt in part by the effects of Sandy. 

An editorial in the Oregonian puts it more succinctly:

"[I]f you get caught in traffic Friday, remember it's for a good cause," writes the paper's editorial board. "The Black Friday shoppers are helping rebuild the economy one gift at a time."  

Then again, do we really want to "rebuild" the economy, or just improve it? The economic system that collapsed in 2008 was held together in large part by consumer debt. Do we really want to bring that back?

And even a growing economy does not necessarily correlate with human happiness. Divorces, suicides, airline crashes, and oil spills increase the GDP just as reliably as the launch of a new iPhone. 

That said, a lousy holiday shopping season spells real economic suffering for people, in the form of fewer job openings, reduced pay and hours, and stagnant pensions.

But does this fact make shoppers patriots? Are those who observe Buy Nothing Day acting against, as one CBS executive put it, "in opposition to current economic policy in the United States"? What is the extent, if any, of our moral obligation to buy stuff? 

-- Eoin O'Carroll

Updated 9:27 am

Big box retailers made headlines this year by kicking off Black Friday earlier than ever. Kmart, Walmart, Toys R Us, Sears opened their doors at 8pm on Thanksgiving in many states, and Target opened at 9pm. 

The early openings drew criticism from those who argued that shoppers and retail workers should be spending Thanksgiving at home with their families, but it looks as though the strategy is paying off for big retailers, at least so far. 

Many news outlets report that shoppers arrived in full force last night to kick off the start of the holiday shopping season. 

CNN Money quotes Toys R Us CEO Jerry Storch: "Our customers love the earlier opening," said Storch. "The atmosphere is celebratory and the crowds have been happy and excited to start their holiday shopping."

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