Bargain shoppers headed to the nation's stores and malls before the sun rose Friday to nab specials on everything from toys to flat-screen TVs as the holiday shopping season officially opened.

Retailers heightened their pitch to shoppers with expanded hours, generous discounts and free money in the form of gift cards to lure consumers in a slowing but still steady economy. A growing number of stores and malls unlocked their doors at midnight to jump-start the season. CompUSA Inc. and BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. (BJ) even opened on Thanksgiving for the first time.

"Retailers are doing more to get consumers into the stores earlier this year," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C.

This year, a growing number of shoppers like Sean Humphreys headed straight from their turkey dinner to the malls to take advantage of midnight openings.

"I wanted to see if I could get anything early," said Humphreys, who was picking out clothing at a Ralph Lauren Polo store at 12:04 a.m. Friday at the Premium Outlet Center 25 miles north of Dallas.

Chelsea Premium Outlets, the center's owner, experimented with the early start last year and more than tripled the number of participating centers this year, including three of its Texas outlets.

Even if they weren't heading to stores pulling all-nighters, plenty of shoppers embraced the official opening of the shopping season with bravado, camping out outside stores like Best Buy starting on Thursday morning and skipping a sit-down feast altogether.

The Best Buy (BBY) store in West Patterson, N.J., had almost 2,000 people in line for Friday's 5 a.m. opening, many of whom had lined up starting at 8 a.m. on Thursday.

"They had turkey sandwiches," said Chuck O'Donnell, a Best Buy district service manager, which did well with all the early morning specials advertised in its circular, including $1,000 42-inch, high-definition Westinghouse TVs and digital cameras for $80.

Mark Demers, 23, of Bristol, Conn., camped out overnight in front of the Best Buy store in West Hartford after seeing a TV commercial late Thursday touting a sale on the 42-inch plasma televisions.

Carting it to his car early Friday, he said the rest of his shopping would be done online.

"Large crowds drive me nuts, but this was my Christmas present to myself," he said.

Even those who arrived early Friday and waited in line for the doors to open at 5 a.m. were not guaranteed success. Brian Clark, 27, of Bristol left empty-handed after the televisions and computers he'd eyed as Christmas gifts were snatched by earlier shoppers.

Alarmed by a recent shooting of a customer waiting outside a Connecticut Wal-Mart store for Sony's PlayStation 3, which are almost impossible to find, Clark had tucked his Glock pistol in a holster under his jacket and put extra ammunition in his pocket before heading out early Friday.

"Not that I'll probably need it, but just in case. You never know these days," he said, quickly adding that he has a state permit for a concealed weapon.

Gary Miller, a 45-year-old computer programmer in Cincinnati, was at Wal-Mart at 5 a.m. to hunt for a 20-inch LCD television that he had seen advertised online.

"My wife sent me out for this one," he said, pointing to the set in his shopping cart. "But then I saw this one (a 20-inch conventional TV) for $85 and said, what the heck, I'll get that one, too."

Plenty of shoppers, like Rochelle Little, 28, of Palmyra, N.J., had been preparing for Black Friday since mid-October, helped by a swath of new Web sites, like blackfriday.info and fatwallet.com, that post retailers' deals. (Black Friday got its name because many stores that would otherwise have been in the red traditionally ended up posting profits from the surge of holiday shopping.)

Little monitored a Web site called BFAds.net to help map her shopping excursion as precisely as a military campaign, first at Toys "R" Us, then Wal-Mart (WMT) and Target (TGT). She said the planning worked. Little was able to get her 7-year-old son, Taron Hampton, a motorized scooter for $99 — a savings of $70 — and a Robosapien remote control robot for $30.

Joe O'Conner of New York did research the old-fashioned way. He visited Macy's Herald Square store a few days before to scope things out.

As a result, it took him 41 minutes to get all his shopping done. He entered Macy's two minutes after the store opened at 6 a.m., and walked out with two shirts, a leather jacket and a pendant for his wife. All the items were on sale.

"It went very smooth," said the 62-year-old retired banker from Brooklyn. "I knew where everything was when I came in."

While Black Friday officially starts holiday shopping, generally it's no longer the busiest day of the season — that honor now falls to the last Saturday before Christmas. Stores say Black Friday sets the tone for the overall season, however: What consumers see that day influences where they will shop for the rest of the season.

Last year, total Black Friday sales dipped 0.9 percent to $8 billion from the year before, dampened by deep discounting, according to Shopper Trak RCT Corp., which tracks sales at more than 45,000 mall-based retail outlets. For the Thanksgiving weekend, total sales rose just 0.4 percent to $16.8 billion.

Even so, merchants ended up meeting their holiday sales projections, helped by a last-minute buying surge and post-Christmas shopping.

This year, analysts expect robust holiday sales gains for the retail industry, though the pace is expected to be slower than a year ago. The National Retail Federation projects a 5 percent gain in total holiday sales for the November-December period, less than the 6.1 percent in the year-ago period.

Meanwhile, the International Council of Shopping Centers estimates sales at stores open at least a year will rise 3 percent in the November-December period, less than last year's 3.6 percent.