The official holiday shopping season appears to have gotten off to a lukewarm start, according to results announced Saturday by a national research group that monitors retail sales. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) was one bright spot in the crowd, reporting its sales exceeded expectations.

According to ShopperTrak RCT Corp., which tracks total sales at more than 45,000 retail outlets, the overall sales on Friday were relatively unchanged compared to a year ago, despite heavier discounting and expanded hours that drew a surge of shoppers to stores in the early morning hours.

The Chicago-based research group reported total sales Friday at $8 billion, down 0.9 percent from a year ago.

"Although the Black Friday number is a bit flat, this may be misleading as we're comparing this to a very strong 2004 performance," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist and director of research for the International Council of Shopping Centers, in a statement.

He added that while Black Friday — so named because the post-Thanksgiving surge of shoppers supposedly pushes stores into profitability for the year — is important to merchants, it's not always the best indicator of consumer shopping patterns for the remainder of the season.

In 2004, the Friday after Thanksgiving was the second busiest day of the holiday shopping season, according to ShopperTrak; the busiest day was the Saturday before Christmas.

In a challenging but improving economy, the nation's retailers plied shoppers Friday with heavier discounting and earlier openings than a year ago. There were also a number of newcomers to the early bird special scene, including Disney Stores and Wal-Mart's Sam's Clubs.

At Wal-Mart (WMT) , the deep discounts and expanded hours appeared to have paid off.

The world's largest retailer said Saturday that it expects to post a solid 4.3 percent gain in same-store sales for November, helped by better-than expected sales Friday. That's at the midpoint of its growth forecast of 3 to 5 percent. The sales results cover the four-week period through Friday.

Same-store sales are sales at stores opened at least a year and are considered the best indicator of a retailer's health.

Wal-Mart and the nation's other major retailers are to report their final November sales results Thursday.

Wal-Mart said in a recorded telephone message Saturday that business at its namesake stores and Sam's Clubs during the company's six-hour early bird special event exceeded company projections. The company reported "good steady traffic" throughout the stores even after the deals ended.

The best-selling items were computers, dolls, portable DVD players and video games, the company said.

"We were very pleased. We opened early, and people came to us first," said Gail Lavielle, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman. She said about 10 million people jammed the stores during the six-hour special event.

After stumbling last holiday season by not offering enough discounts, Wal-Mart made an aggressive push to win over shoppers early this season. It launched a holiday ad campaign on Nov. 1, a few weeks earlier than a year ago. And on the day after Thanksgiving, it offered deeper discounts and threw open its doors at 5 a.m, an hour earlier than a year ago.