A person wears a face mask while carrying shopping bags in Columbus Circle on November 28, 2020 in New York City.Noam Galai | Getty ImagesFewer holiday shoppers bought gifts during the five-day period from Black Friday to Cyber Monday, and those who did spent less, as discounts started early this year, according to the National Retail Federation.The retail trade group said about 186.4 million shoppers bought holiday gifts, food or decorations from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday. That’s less than the 189.6 million shoppers who bought items during that period last year, but higher than the 165.8 million who shopped in 2018.Over the weekend, average spending on gifts, decorations and food was $311.75, down about $50 from last year, the NRF said.On a call with reporters, NRF Chief Executive and President Matt Shay said shoppers concentrated less of their shopping during the weekend since many began buying items in October. Yet he said Americans are still enthusiastic about celebrating the season and indicated that they have half of their shopping to finish.”We have seen that pretty much whatever segment, whatever brand, one consistent theme is that consumers have gotten a head start on holiday shopping,” Shay said.This year, online shopping played a more important role for retailers during Black Friday weekend. Shay said about 57% of holiday shoppers indicated they plan to shop more online because of the pandemic. Those new habits cut across consumers of all ages and backgrounds, he said.”As the coronavirus cases have spiked across the country over the past few weeks, we continue to see consumers prioritize their personal health and safety as well as public health and the health of the communities in which they live and work,” Shay said. “They continue to adjust their shopping behavior online to avoid large crowds.”Shoppers also could be looking to make their money matter. The number of online shoppers during Small Business Saturday rose 17% to about 68 million people. A growing number of Americans have expressed a desire to support local shops and Black entrepreneurs during a year when the pandemic has hurt small businesses and the George Floyd protests have highlighted Black Americans’ unequal access to opportunity. That’s also fueled spending on Etsy, a website that features unique, handmade and personalized gifts made by small businesses.The number of shoppers who bought items online only during the weekend increased by 44% to 95.7 million shoppers, the group said.Even with the significant shift to online shopping this year, Shay said he expects crowds to return to stores for Black Friday in the future. He said Americans will want to resume traditions after the Covid-19 vaccine.”I wouldn’t be surprised if Black Friday next year was the biggest in history,” he said. “I just think that there’s going to be an enormous amount of pent-up demand for all of us to go out and to socialize and to be together and to experience some of the things that we miss right now.”The biggest spenders during the five-day period were between the ages of 35 and 44, according to an analysis by NRF and Prosper Insights & Analytics. This group spent about $380, almost $70 more than the average shopper.Shoppers bought a mix of gifts, but the top merchandise was clothing at 52%, said Phil Rist, the company’s executive vice president of strategy. That was followed by toys at 32% and books and other media at 29%. Gift cards were also at 29%, and electronics were at 27%.He said free shipping motivated hesitant shoppers to make the purchase more than any other factor. Rist said limited time sales and promotions, the ease of using apps and websites and other customers’ reviews influenced consumers, too.The NRF expects 2020 holiday sales to rise as Americans spend less on travel and dining out and put that money toward gifts instead. It predicted that spending will increase by between 3.6% and 5.2% year over year, amounting to between $755.3 billion and $766.7 billion. On average, holiday sales have risen by 3.5% for the past five years, according to the NRF. The sales forecast excludes car dealers, gas stations and restaurants. They increased 4% to $729.1 billion last year, NRF said.Yet even the timing of the industry group’s forecast for this year illustrated uncertainty about how the pandemic and recession will influence consumer behavior. The NRF usually shares its holiday sales expectations in early October. This year, it delayed that outlook until late November.