NEW YORK (CNNfn) - The holiday shopping season officially got underway Friday as consumers crammed into stores with credit cards blazing.
The day after Thanksgiving -- the so-called "Black Friday" -- starts a five-week shopping blitzkrieg where consumers are expected to spend $180 billion, or at least $500 per family. Analysts believe sales at traditional stores will rise 5 percent to 6 percent.
Mall traffic was initially lighter than normal in the early hours, said John Konarski, vice president of research at the International Council of Shopping Centers, but had improved by 1 p.m.
"The afternoon has picked up very nicely," he said.
Konarski, who noted that the weekend accounts for about 8 percent of sales for the holiday season, said toy makers loaded up on everything related to this year's gift obsession Pokemon, taking some of the heat off parents who must deliver the "in thing."
Unlike prior years when customers fought for limited supplies of Furby or Tickle Me Elmo items, there was plenty of Pokemon.
"There isn't one Pokemon thing that is really popular," he said. "Everything about Pokemon is hot, and there is a lot of it available."
Pamela Rucker, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, said traffic was fairly strong at malls she visited in New Jersey and New York, with most shoppers flocking to toy stores, many of which opened early to meet demand.
"A lot of people are in toy stores, leaving with bags full of toys," Rucker said. "Macy's Herald Square was literally shoulder-to-shoulder. That's good. It's going to set the tenor for the rest of the season."
Rucker said cool, rainy weather along much of the East Coast should help apparel retailers move winter clothing, which had been neglected on the racks after several weeks of unseasonably warm weather.
Shoppers got an early start on the day as many retailers offered early bird specials that ran from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m.
In Chicago, shoppers lined up in front of Marshall Field's flagship State Street department store well before doors opened, hoping to get first dibs on holiday goods and grab early morning specials.
Les Copeland, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), the world's No.1 retailer, said employees at one of the Bentonville, Ark.-based company's stores reported 600 to 800 people waiting outside, just itching to get in and shop.
"Some people arrived at 3 a.m. to try and get a place in line," Copeland said. "Traditionally the day after Thanksgiving is the busiest shopping day of the year and this year appears to be no exception."
Copeland said preliminary reports from the shopping front showed that electronics were moving very well, along with bicycles and, of course, Pokemon.
The crowds also were lining up at New York's premier toy retailer, FAO Schwarz.
"It's incredible," said Alan Marcus, corporate public relations manager. "Right now we're about 40 percent up from this time last year. It's been extraordinary. The market is just amazing, everything's been very strong."
Analysts said the continued strong economy and high consumer confidence are fueling holiday shopping.
A CNNfn poll found that nearly 46 percent of the respondents said they expected to spend more during this shopping season than they have in the past.
Early morning shopper Anna Gonzales told CNNfn in New York that she was spending about $1,000 on holiday gift purchases this year.
"I can spend a lot of money," she said. "I'll also stay within my budget."
This is the year online shopping is expected to make its big move and CNNfn's poll found about 57 percent of the people responding planned to do more online buying than they have in the past.
According to a Deloitte & Touche survey, 10 percent of respondents said they would buy gifts on the Internet this holiday season, double the total of 1998.
"We think this is going to be a banner year," said Edward Carey who specializes in consumer business at Deloitte Consulting. "Consumer confidence is at an all-time high, unemployment is down, and people have money to spend."
Carey said despite forecasts for strong Internet demand, e-commerce would likely account for only 1 percent of total retail sales.
Internet retailers were the driving force on Wall Street Friday, with Amazon.com (AMZN), eToys (ETYS) and CDNow (CDNW) all advancing.
Peter Schwab, national director of corporate finance services at Ernst & Young, noted that the day after Friday is traditionally a light trading day.
"I don't think these are institutional buys," he said. "I think it's private investors who are buying Internet stocks."
Schwab said he expected Internet stock prices to fluctuate during December as varying media reports influence the sector.
--from staff and wire reports