(Adds investor and shopper comment, detail on sales)
NEW YORK, Nov 23 (Reuters) - U.S. shoppers formed long queues at store checkout counters on Black Friday to take advantage of deep discounts on clothing and electronics, offering evidence that a healthy economy and rising wages are translating into stronger consumer spending at the start of retailers' make-or-break holiday season.
Black Friday, one of the biggest shopping days of the year, kicks off the key holiday shopping season for retailers and is closely watched by analysts and economists for clues on the strength of the retail sector and the economy in general.
One question facing investors in the final weeks of 2018 is whether the U.S. economy is in the late part of the economic cycle, still boosted by last year's tax cuts but increasingly facing headwinds, including rising interest rates, a trade war with chief supplier China and credit issues.
A strong, confident consumer could delay or soften any eventual slowdown.
Shoppers picked up big ticket items such as TVs, Apple iPads and Watches in-store and online at Target Corp, while phones, toys, gaming consoles and cookware were top sellers at Walmart Inc.
Some of the deals:
* An H&M store in Manhattan offered 30 percent off everything in-store and online.
* A sign in the window of a Gap Factory Store in Jackson Heights, Queens, promoted "60% Off Everything."
* Urban Outfitters was offering buy one get 50 percent off the second item at the same or lower price.
* Walmart was selling a Roomba WiFi robot vacuum online or for in-store pickup for $100 off at $194.
* Buy 1 Get 1 Free pajamas at Victoria's Secret.
Charlotte Jackson of London come to New York with her mother for Black Friday shopping.
Black Friday isnt as big of a deal back home, Jackson, a 27-year-old tax advisor, said while shopping for lingerie and pajamas at Victorias Secret.
Shortly before 6 a.m. ET on Friday, shoppers were seen banging on the door at a Bath & Body Works in the Waterfront Mall in Pittsburgh, lining up for discounted candles, soaps and lotion, while long lines formed at checkout counters in a Dick's Sporting Goods store in the mall.
But there was little evidence of the delirious shopper frenzy customary of Black Fridays from past years, in other parts of the country, especially the North East, where crowds were thin due to record-cold weather.
Columbia computer science graduates Bhavaya Shahi and Ketakee Nimavat, both 21, pulled an all-nighter outside Macy's Herald Square store in New York.
"We heard there were going to be long lines," Shahi said, with bags in her hands and hanging on her forearm. "It's emptier than we thought."
Moody's analyst Charlie O'Shea, who was visiting stores in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on Thursday said a slower start at stores on Thanksgiving and Black Friday was not indicative of shopper appetite during the season.
"The season is expected to be strong and all signs when it comes to consumer sentiment point to that," he said.
Sharon Neidert, 57, manager at a software company said she was visiting New York from Ohio with her daughter. They watched the Macy's Thanksgiving parade yesterday and were out looking for deals on Thursday.
"I am spending more, the mood generally is more upbeat," she said,
Shoppers spent $1.75 billion online by 5 p.m. ET on Thanksgiving, with smartphone sales lifting overall online spending by 28.6 percent from a year ago, according to Adobe Analytics, which tracks transactions at 80 of the top 100 U.S. online retailers.
So far, so good," said Shawn Kravetz, president of Esplanade Capital, about Black Friday. "Online (and) email solicitations (are) off the charts have to get up an hour early just to digest and delete them.
Consumers in San Francisco led the rest of the country with over 2.3 million online transactions, followed by over 954,000 in New York City, more than 415,000 in Dallas and 389,000 in Houston on Thursday, according to payments processor First Data Corp, which collects data from about 1 million U.S. merchants.
Electronics retailers such as Best Buy Co Inc saw the most number of transactions followed by department stores such as Macy's Inc, according to Adobe's data.
Traditionally, the day after Thanksgiving, or Black Friday, kicks off the holiday shopping season in the United States. But with U.S. stores now opening on Thanksgiving evening, the typical rush seen on the morning of Black Friday has split.
The National Retail Federation forecast U.S. holiday retail sales in November and December will increase between 4.3 and 4.8 percent over 2017 for a total of $717.45 billion to $720.89 billion. That compares with an average annual increase of 3.9 percent over the past five years.
About 38 percent of American consumers plan to shop on Black Friday this year, and six in 10 of those shoppers anticipate making at least half of their holiday purchases on that day, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed last week. (Additional reporting by Melissa Fares, Shannon Stapleton in Long Island and Chriss Swaney in Pittsburgh; Siddharth Cavale in Bangalore; Writing by Nick Zieminski editing by Patrick Graham, Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Susan Thomas)