Thousands of bargain shoppers, facing frigid temperatures, woke up before dawn and headed to the nation's malls and stores Friday, the official start of the holiday shopping season.

Things got out of hand at a Wal-Mart store in Orlando, Fla., where a man who allegedly cut in line to get a discounted laptop computer was wrestled to the ground, according to a video shown by an ABC affiliate, WFTV-TV. The store's manager referred questions to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., where officials had no immediate comment.

In an improving but still challenging economy, merchants seemed to be even more aggressive in wooing the big crowds from a year ago, luring them with such come-ons as free money in the form of gift cards. For the first time, Macy's, a division of Federated Department Stores Inc. (FD), was giving away a total of $1 million in gift cards to early bird shoppers. Some retailers, like J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (JCP) and Wal-Mart, threw open their doors earlier in a bid to keep them shopping longer in their stores.

Such incentives may have worked. Based on early reports from some retail executives, traffic and buying appeared more robust than last year, but stores need customers to keep buying throughout the season.

"To me, it looks like more traffic than what we have seen," said Terry Lundgren, chairman, president and CEO of Federated, who was walking the floors of Macy's Herald Square in New York, which attracted 1,000 customers to its doors for the 6 a.m. opening. "I have also seen a lot of bags." Hot items were cashmere sweaters, down comforters and scarves, at up to 60 percent off, he said.

"Today, things look really good. But these next five weeks are really critical," Lundgren added. "You have to wait and see how it unfolds."

At a Best Buy Co. Inc. (BBY) store at CambridgeSide Galleria, in Cambridge, Mass., the line of about 400 shoppers snaked through the indoor mall for the 5 a.m. store opening, a scene that was played out across the country.

"The prices are much better than last year," said Shirley Xie, 30, who was with Jen Lin, 35, both from Medford, Mass. The married couple said they were enticed by deals such as a Toshiba Corp. laptop computer, with a 15-inch screen, that was $379.99 after a $370 instant rebate. The offer ended at noon Friday. Xie said a comparable laptop she bought last year as a gift cost about $600. The couple bought a pair of the computers as gifts for a niece and nephew entering college.

The couple also bought a SanDisk Corp. MP3 player for $39.99 after a $60 instant rebate available until noon.

At a Wal-Mart store in Strongsville, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, the biggest crowds for the 5 a.m. opening were in the electronics aisles. Portable DVD players were selling for $79.86; 20-inch flat screen TVs, advertised for $129.83, were selling for $89; and the Garth Brooks limited-edition, six-disc box set was priced at $25.

"It's a little rough but heh," said Lorenzo DeMassino, 31, who bought Game Boy items.

Meanwhile, about 100 people lined up for the 6. a.m. opening in freezing weather outside the Super Target (TGT) in Apex, N.C., about 10 miles south of Raleigh.

Meredith Carter, 29, from Apex, took the first spot in line when she arrived around 4:50 a.m., about 10 minutes after the veteran Black Friday shopper woke up.

By 6:05 a.m., she was buying one of two items on her list: a Kodak Easy Share digital camera for $89.99, saving about 50 percent. She was then off to find a George Foreman grill, also at 50 percent off.

"I plan to get what I want and go home," she said.

With a wider range of retailers, including warehouse clubs like Wal-Mart's Sam's Clubs offering early bird specials for the first time, shoppers had many options.

At a Sam's Club in Plano, Texas, some of the biggest draws were 1,200 thread-count sheets on sale for $97.88 and Samsung 7 MP digital cameras, priced at $199.47.

Lee and Don Taylor were among the first ones there and grabbed the Samsung digital camera. Afterward, they grabbed several home improvement items and were checking out by 5:15 a.m. Lee Taylor then looked at her husband and said: "We have to go to Wal-Mart next, and if they don't have what we need, we can go do Sears, right?" she asked.

Retailers' spirits have improved in recent weeks amid falling gasoline prices. In fact, on Tuesday the Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation upgraded its holiday growth forecast to 6 percent from the 5 percent it had announced back in September.

Still, many shoppers are cautious. While gasoline prices have fallen, they are still high, and this winter shoppers will face higher heating bills.

Shelley Humback, 30, of Strongsville, Ohio, who was shopping at a local Wal-Mart, said she plans to spend about $1,000 this year on Christmas gifts, half of what she spent last year.

"Everything's up, including the price of gas. I have to pay to heat my home," she said.

Retailers are hoping that consumers won't delay their holiday shopping until the last minute, but most analysts believe consumers will procrastinate again this year.

While the day after Thanksgiving officially starts the holiday shopping season, it is no longer the busiest shopping day. Last year, it was Saturday, Dec. 18, a week before Christmas.

Last year, the Thanksgiving weekend rush accounted for only 9.2 percent of holiday sales. The busiest week was from Dec. 12 through Dec. 18, which garnered 22.5 percent of holiday sales, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Still, executives say that the day after Thanksgiving sets an important tone for the rest of the shopping season.

"You get a lot of customers coming into the store," said Federated's Lundgren. "That influences where they will shop for the rest of the season." He noted that the assortment and value will determine whether they will come back.