They lined up before dawn to catch early-morning discounts. They braved holiday traffic, jammed parking lots at the malls and even got into a scuffle or two over items on the shelves.
Friday kicked off the traditional post-Thanksgiving parade of shoppers, and while retailers large and small watched the crowds with approval, many analysts pointed to economic signs that could erode the consumer optimism that powered record spending increases in the past few holiday seasons.
A quirk of the calendar this year makes the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas longer than usual at 31 days, which merchants say is good for sales. But retailers, analysts and even some shoppers say that uncertainty about the stock market, the national election and energy costs have replaced last year's buoyant mood.
Sales this year are expected to be higher than last year, but the percentage gains will be smaller than before, analysts said.
William Ford, a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta and a senior economic adviser for TeleCheck, which tracks sales at about a quarter of a million stores, said he expects to see same-store sales (excluding online sales) go up by about 4 percent during the holiday season, compared with a 5.5 percent increase last year.
"I think it will be a mediocre Christmas," said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
While the economy is strong and unemployment is low, "there are a negative set of forces counteracting the positive ones," said Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard's Retail Trend Report. Included in the negative forces, he said, is that credit-card debt is 10 percent higher than it was a year ago.
Despite the collapse of many e-commerce ventures, analysts say online sales -- while still a small portion of retail spending -- could be a bright spot this holiday season, with some predicting that spending on the Internet will double. Forecasts for online sales range from $10 billion to $19 billion.
Last year the holiday season benefited from many consumers' expectations that they could make quick financial gains in the stock market, Barnard said. "I now declare the Wall Street wealth effect dead," he said.
Given that climate, retailers have been promoting heavily, offering low prices to attract shoppers. Earlier this week it was "pre-Thanksgiving" sales. Friday it was shop-early deals.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. spokesman Rob Phillips said his headquarters surveyed about 30 stores nationwide Friday.
"The stores we talked to had a very good day, but whether or not it was better than last year remains to be seen," he said.
About 500 people stood in line outside a Wal-Mart in Scottsbluff, Neb., waiting for it to open at 6 a.m., he added, while shoppers showed up as early as 3 a.m. at other Wal-Mart stores.
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