On Your Mark, Get Set, Shop!

Stores across America opened before dawn Friday as holiday bargain hunters headed to malls, hoping to take advantage of early bird specials offer for the official opening of the holiday shopping season.

The Friday after Thanksgiving, sometimes dubbed Black Friday for the black ink it is expected to bring retailers, is the second busiest shopping day of the year. The busiest is the Saturday before Christmas.

A sluggish economy and the threat of war seemed far from shoppers' minds Friday, reports CBS News Correspondent Randall Pinkston.

"I know the economy is not doing so well but I think it will get better and I don't think we're going to go to war," said a shopper in Los Angeles.

"This is the holiday time and Christmas time and my son's birthday, so I'm going to enjoy myself and not let it bother me and try not let it bother me," said another, in Miami.

In a scene that played out across the country, about 500 people lined up at a Wal-Mart store in Abington, Mass., before the discounter opened its doors at 5 a.m.

Among the early risers was Donna Gramazio of Brockton, Mass., who came out to buy children's bikes and a battery-operated toy Jeep, which was on sale for $197.

"I wanted to get my shopping done all in one day," she said.

At a store in Taylorsville, Utah, reports Ben Winslow of CBS Radio affiliate KSL-AM, two men were trampled in the rush to enter an electronics store, and there were several fight inside, too. The police had to be called to restore order.

One of the first in line at a Wal-Mart in Manville, N.J., was Jackie Hawkins, 45, of Somerville, N.J., who showed up a little after 4 a.m. for the 5 a.m. store opening. She was in search of a Nintendo Advanced Game Boy. Meanwhile, Joan Muniz, 48, of North Brunswick, N.J., was excited about the 27-inch television she got for $148.98.

Merchants count on holiday shopping for up to a third of their annual sales. But despite deep discounts, which began before Thanksgiving, most analysts predict a lack luster retail season, with no more than 3 to 4 per cent growth.

"Sales will be intense. Consumers will turn out in full force to the mall, but there is a general feeling that consumers are going to be reticent," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report, based in Upper Montclair, N.J. "They will look at the price tag before they look at the product."

There's another factor holding sales down.

"There's nothing really much out there to buy," analyst Wendy Liebmann of WSL Strategic Retail told CBS News.

In other words, there are no "must have" presents, such as in the past

"Play Stations, Cabbage Patch dolls, things that are innovative —There's not much of that this season at all," said Liebmann.

The nation's largest merchants have protected themselves with lean inventories so they won't have mounds of leftovers on Dec. 26. But stores might also have the opposite problem - finding themselves with not enough merchandise if consumers decide to splurge.

After all, shoppers pleasantly surprised retailers last holiday season with last-minute buying binges that resulted in better-than-anticipated results.

But so far in November, merchants haven't seen any encouraging signs.

"Clearly, there is still considerable amount of uncertainty — the prospect of war in Iraq and the economy. The consumer is still not on solid ground," said Michael P. Niemira, vice president of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd. He is expecting sales at stores open at least a year to be up 3 percent for November and December combined. That's compared with a 2.2 percent increase last year.

To bring in more customers, and more sales, some stores are changing the way they do business.

"Everything in our store is interactive," said Jeff Yapp, president of Cablevision/The Wiz. "We built the store so that you as a customer can come in, try, touch, explore."

The Wiz, a New York-based consumer electronics chain, is just emerging from bankruptcy. To stay afloat, it slashed its workforce, closed unprofitable outlets, and retooled what was left.

Now managers are counting on a knowledgeable staff and consumers willing to open their wallets to keep them in business.

"Christmas is extremely important for everyone," said Yapp. "It is very important for the Wiz this year.

The Washington-based National Retail Federation predicts total holiday retail sales, which exclude restaurant and auto sales, will increase by 4 percent to roughly $209.25 billion. That would make it the weakest increase since 1997.

Last holiday, retailers had $201.2 billion in sales, up 5.6 percent from 2000.

While the Thanksgiving weekend starts the shopping spree, it no longer is the busiest period of the season. Last year, the weekend accounted for 8.4 percent of holiday sales. The busiest period was the last week before Christmas, which accounted for 34 percent of holiday sales, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.