By James Davey and Li-mei Hoang
LONDON (Reuters) - Britons splashed out on "Black Friday" bargains on Friday but many opted to go online rather than head to the shops for an event imported from the United States that has become a key feature of the UK retail calendar.
With many shoppers having received their last pay packet before Christmas, retailers are hoping the promotions will kick-start festive trading after a weak November.
Researcher Conlumino is forecasting the event will generate UK sales, both in stores and online, of 1.6 billion pounds, up 20 percent on 2014. It forecast online spending would jump 32 percent to 1.1 billion pounds.
"There’s been plenty of anecdotal evidence around...to suggest that Black Friday, in terms of store-based retail, has been something of a damp squib in the UK this year," said Bryan Roberts of researcher Kantar Retail.
"It seems certain that Black Friday will largely be an online event this year."
Last year's Black Friday was marred by long queues and brawls in stores. A typical mixture of strong winds and heavy rain across Britain and memories of last year's scuffles were likely to have encouraged more Britons to shop online this year.
British retailers are anxious to avoid a repeat of last year's trading pattern when the surge in lower-margin sales was followed by disappointing demand as shoppers held back in the hope of further discounts.
This year several retailers -- including Amazon, Argos, Marks & Spencer and Dixons Carphone -- have stretched "Black Friday" discounts over several days to smooth demand.
Social media indicated stores across the country were quieter than last year and shoppers better behaved.
Researcher FootFall estimates Black Friday in-store shopper numbers will be down by up to 4 percent from 2014.
Supermarket Asda, which is owned by Wal-Mart and was one of the UK's Black Friday pioneers, stepped back from the event this year, blaming "shopper fatigue".
UNPRECEDENTED DEMAND ONLINE
At the huge Westfield shopping centre in east London, close to the London 2012 Olympic stadium, trading was lively rather than frenzied.
Shaquille Simon, a 21 year-old McDonald's manager, said he bought two TVs online from Tesco at midnight: "I bought one for me and one for my mum. Why not?"
He then headed to Westfield, where he picked up speakers and headphones. "If I see something I like I'll buy it. Simple as that," he said.
In the U.S. Black Friday, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday, was so named because spending would pick up and retailers would begin to turn a profit for the year and move into the black.
Introduced into Britain in 2010 by U.S. online retailer Amazon, its popularity forced store groups to join the fray and this year, according to a survey by Barclays, 77 percent of them are participating.
There was a similar trend in the United States where crowds were relatively thin but online sales appeared strong.
Dixons Retail's Currys PC World chain reported unprecedented online demand, with a 53 percent increase in hourly web traffic compared to last year. The firm's CEO Seb James tweeted: "Website holding up really well after big investment this year."
Social media reported that both Argos and Tesco's websites were struggling to keep up with demand.
Argos said its site had so far seen over 7.2 million visits but had not crashed or seen any outages. It apologised if some customers were experiencing delays as a result of demand.
Previous Black Friday winners in Britain have been those retailers, such as Dixons Retail, who buy specifically for the event, enabling them to maintain profit margins.
Losers tend to be those who simply slash prices on existing stock or react to rivals' promotions.
(Editing by Keith Weir)