Department store and other retail stocks climbed Friday as Americans descended on the nation's malls for the traditional start to the holiday shopping season.

The day after the Thanksgiving holiday is known as "Black Friday" because it once marked the day when many retailers got out of the red for the year. About 50 percent of annual sales come in the fourth quarter, with the crucial holiday shopping season, for some retailers — especially those in the toy business.

Analysts were optimistic that Friday would provide the kick-start required for a strong holiday retail season.

Customer Growth Partners LLC, a retail consultant in New Canaan, Conn., predicted U.S. holiday sales will be the most robust since 1999.

"I expect today to be a very strong day for the best retailers," said Richard Hastings, a retail analyst at credit advisory firm Bernard Sands.

"Those which have done a terrific job on marketing going into today would include Target, J.C. Penney, Kohl's and Old Navy."

The Standard & Poor's Department Stores Index (search) rose 1.13 percent.

Shares of Saks Inc. (SKS), the luxury department store chain, jumped 6.2 percent, or 85 cents, to $14.64.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. (S) stock rose 2 percent, or $1.08, to $54.30.

Sears, an iconic name in American retailing because of its now defunct Sears, Roebuck catalog, last week announced plans to merge with discounter Kmart Holding Corp. (KMRT), home of the "Blue Light Special" shopping madness. The stock of Kmart also was up 2 percent, or $2.12, at $107.39.

In a glimpse of just how competitive U.S. retailing has become, Kmart signs saying "Kmart Open on Thanksgiving" appeared early Thursday on the outskirts of the parking lot of Target's new store in Jersey City, N.J.

The shares of J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (JCP), Sears' mid-priced department store rival, gained 1 percent, or 42 cents, to $40.56.

But the stock of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), the world's largest retailer, slipped 0.3 percent, or 18 cents, to $55.32. Wal-Mart, known for its aggressive discounts, surpassed Toys R Us as the No. 1 U.S. toy seller in the late 1990s.

Shares of Toys 'R Us Inc. (TOY), which has said it may exit the toy business and focus on its baby merchandise, fell 0.3 percent, or 6 cents, to $19.55. Toys R Us and other toy retailers have struggled — with some like privately held KB Toys, Inc. filing for bankruptcy — after last holiday season's brutal price war.

Federated Department Stores Inc. (FD), the parent of Macy's and Bloomingdale's, added 0.6 percent, or 34 cents, to $57.33. Macy's name is almost synonymous with the holiday season because of its sponsorship of the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade down Broadway in New York City.

Gap Inc. (GPS), the clothing retailer whose ads feature "Sex and the City" star Sarah Jessica Parker, gained almost 1 percent, or 22 cents, to $23.04. Gap Inc. also owns the Old Navy chain.

Shares of discounter Target Corp. rose 0.5 percent, or 24 cents, to $52.21. Target, known for trendy merchandise like fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi's modestly priced women's clothes and teapots designed by architect Michael Graves, began saturating the airwaves with holiday commercials in TV's prime time hours about three weeks before Thanksgiving.

The stock of Kohl's Corp. (KSS), the moderately priced department store operator that offers senior citizen discounts almost every week, climbed 1.2 percent, or 60 cents, to $48.95.

The S&P Apparel Retailers Index rose 0.74 percent, while the broader S&P Retailing Index was up 0.21 percent.

Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL), maker of the iPod music device, pinpointed by analysts and consumers as a popular gift this Christmas, advanced 0.8 percent, or 50 cents, to $64.55.

Shares of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. (MSO), the media and lifestyle merchandising company founded by imprisoned entrepreneur Martha Stewart, hit their highest level in almost four years on Friday —- soaring 13.3 percent, or $2.89, to close at $24.63. The stock last touched that level in early 2001. The U.S. stock market closed early Friday, at 1 p.m., in connection with the long holiday weekend.

Customer Growth Partners Friday forecast that U.S. holiday sales for 2004 will climb at least 6.1 percent above 2003 levels. If that forecast turns out to come true, that would make this year's results the most robust holiday sales since 1999.

The Connecticut-based retail consulting firm said its estimate is sharply higher than most industry forecasts, which call for a rise of between 3 percent and 5 percent.

Customer Growth Partners' estimate is based on visits to stores between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Friday — the peak hours for the "early bird" specials that retailers offer the day after Thanksgiving to lure bargain hunters to their stores.