Americans stormed the nation's shops on Friday after Thanksgiving Day and marked the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, lured by cut-price toys and discounted consumer electronics.

Stores threw open their doors before sunrise, tempting early risers with super specials and free hot coffee. One man in Texas slept in his car outside a store to be the first in line.

Retailers are keeping their fingers crossed that, in an improving though still challenging economy, the crowds will keep coming throughout the next month.

The day after Thanksgiving — known as Black Friday because it once marked the day when retailers got out of the red — kicks off the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas holiday shopping season, which accounts for 23 percent of annual retail sales.

By the time a Wal-Mart (WMT) store in the Buffalo, N.Y. suburb of Hamburg opened its doors at 6 a.m., 1,000 people had formed a lined that spanned the entire store front, despite temperatures of 31 degrees.

"It's our tradition," said Ruth Pompeo, of Lackawanna, N.Y, who was up at 3 a.m. and in line by 4:30 a.m. with her 11-year-old niece Shelby Strack. "I don't know what I'm here to grab, actually, " she said. "Whatever I can."

Many of the early bird specials on hot items were in short supply, however. At another Wal-Mart store in Alpharetta, Ga., just north of Atlanta, a supply of discounted Video Now personal video players sold out in just 12 minutes.

That's why many shoppers mapped out a strategy to get the most coveted bargains.

"The deals are better this early in the morning," said Karen Dawkins, from Cayce, S.C., who was at a Toys R Us (TOY) store in Columbia, S.C. and was almost done with her buying shortly after 6 a.m. "I have my mother at Circuit City (CC) and my sister at Target (TGT) ...so we have people stationed at other stores."

She added, "We all got together after Thanksgiving dinner and got the ads and made a list."

Debbie Redmon of Thayer, Mo., set her alarm for 3:20 a.m. but woke up at 3 a.m., ready to take advantage of bargain shopping in Little Rock, Ark.

"I guess the adrenaline was flowing," she said.

She and daughter-in-law Kerri Littleton of Benton, Ark., hit the same places in Little Rock every year: BestBuy (BBY), then Kohl's (KSS), then Staples (SPLS), then Sports Authority. They had their eyes on BestBuy's Sony PlayStation2 for $149.99 and an MP3 player marked down from $129.99 to $29.99.

Things weren't going as well in the cold and rainy Midwest. In Bismarck, N.D., only about 100 people were in line at Wal-Mart by 4:30 a.m., a half hour before opening, compared with several hundred last year.

Many of the Wal-Mart shoppers said they wanted to by a 24-inch flat-screen Symphonic television, on sale for $139.92.

"Video games and movies are the No. 1 seller with a lots of new games out this year," said Patrick Gates, senior vice president of e-commerce at America Online, a unit of Time Warner Inc. (TWX).

Yahoo! Shopping (search) said the top items sought on its site were digital cameras, running shoes and IPods, but home furnishings and apparel were in more demand than a year ago.

The Washington-based National Retail Federation (search) projects total sales, excluding restaurant and auto sales, will increase 4.5 percent for the November-December period. That would be less than the 5.1 percent gain of a year earlier.

Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, predicts a "pretty good Christmas," estimating that sales at stores opened at least a year for the November-December period will be up 3 percent to 4 percent. That compares to a 4 percent rise a year ago.

Retailers' efforts last year to get shoppers to buy early worked.

During the 2003 holiday shopping season, the busiest day was the Friday after Thanksgiving, instead of the last Saturday before Christmas, which was the second busiest day, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers (search). That reversed a trend seen over the last ten years, when the busiest day was the Saturday before Christmas, according to Mike Niemira, chief economist at the industry group.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.