Black Friday looked a bit on the gray side this year. Although shoppers dutifully showed up in stores, they actually spent less than they did last year.

According to the National Retail Federation, which uses a survey of 5,000 consumers to help it compile data, 13% more shoppers flooded stores on Black Friday this year compared to last. But on average, they each spent about 8% less -- $343.31 versus $372.57.

For the entire four-day shopping weekend, however, the NRF estimated that sales rose just a teensy bit, to $41.2 billion from last year's even $41 billion last year. That’s not exactly heartening news for anyone who believed that pre-Black Friday paranoia was overrated.

On a brighter note, researcher comScore said online shopping sales increased 11% on Black Friday (to $595 million), and 10% on Thanksgiving Day (to $318 million). That could be very good news for online retailers, particularly Internet superstore (NASDAQ:AMZN). The e-tailing giant is already crowing that November marked a new monthly sales record for its Kindle.   

A holly, not-so-jolly Christmas?
Black Friday's overall poor performance proves that even if consumers aren’t as terrified as they were in the midst of economic crisis mode last year, many simply can’t spend much money now. High unemployment, falling real estate prices, and snipped credit lines (or the need to pare down debt) all create serious, even severe, budget constraints for many people. Add in the overall uncertainty plaguing even many employed people, and a healthy holiday shopping season seems an increasingly distant possibility.

To get shoppers jazzed, retailers have resorted to dramatic price cuts. One survey last week showed that a significant majority of consumers would balk at buying if they didn't see half-off prices. On my CAPS blog post on the Black Friday topic, several Fools pointed out that retailers' inventory controls, while important in a recessionary climate, may work against them if they don’t plan appropriately; consumers who are willing to spend can't buy an item if they can't find it on the shelves.

A majority of Foolish readers got it right last week, when polled about the prospect of a bleaker Black Friday and holiday shopping season. Roughly 63% of Foolish respondents predicted that retailers will get coal in their stockings this year as shoppers hold out for dirt cheap discounts.

Check your list twice for what stocks will be naughty or nice…
The bloody battle for holiday bucks will make things very difficult for the retail sector. Highly indebted companies such as Borders (NYSE:BGP) and Talbots will have a tremendously hard time. Some consumer-goods companies will likely struggle, too. How hot could Crocs (NASDAQ:CROX) possibly be this holiday season? I'm doubtful its products will even be lukewarm.

On the other hand, retailers with plenty of cash, negligible debt, and a history of strong sales even during this period of economic malaise sound like keepers to me. I think stocks like Buckle (NYSE:BKE) and Aeropostale (NYSE:ARO) still fit that bill. Other options include Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE:WMT) and Costco (NASDAQ:COST). Both are all about the discounts, and they seem safe for cautious, long-term investors. Indeed, notably wary value hound Warren Buffett  just picked up shares of Wal-Mart.

At this juncture, retail sales for the holiday season still have a glimmer of hope, but it seems safe to say that many of these companies won't have happy holidays. Choose your retail stocks wisely. and Costco are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Costco and Wal-Mart are Inside Value selections. The Fool owns shares of Costco. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool has a disclosure policy.