Janice Williams stood by a shopping cart crammed with bags holding knives, flashlights and fleece jackets, digging into sausage and pancakes courtesy of Bass Pro Shops, her Black Friday hunting expedition successfully completed at 6:30 a.m.

Like thousands of shoppers around the Bay, the Galt resident, her husband and two sons rose before sunup Friday to capture doorbuster bargains on the first day of the holiday shopping season.

The day after Thanksgiving is the busiest shopping day of the year. It got the name Black Friday because it has historically been the day when stores broke into profitability for the full year. Many chain stores and mall retailers open their doors several hours early, offering special deals in an effort to jump-start holiday sales.

Retailers have been trying to put their best spin on this holiday season, but it's hard to hide the fact that it comes in the middle of one of the worst economies in years.

"There's no doubt it's been much slower, and shoppers are more conservative this year than in the past," said Steve Hay, an assistant manager at Restoration Hardware in Blackhawk Plaza in Danville.

Hay said many shoppers are trying to stretch their dollar by buying more of the cheaper items, such as the stocking stuffers near the store entrance.

The number of people expected to shop Friday, today and Sunday is down 5 percent this year, to around 128 million people, compared with 135 million in the same time period last year, according to a National Retail Federation study.

At Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto, which doesn't have big-box store retailers, shoppers weren't as anxious to arrive at the crack of dawn as they were to have an overall favorable shopping experience, said Julie Kelly, director of marketing for the center, which had hourly giveaways, free coffee, strolling entertainment and cushioned chairs with heat lamps.

At 8 a.m. Friday, plenty of parking stalls were still open.

However, at other stores around the Bay, there definitely was more of a sense of urgency.

Adrainne VanderCourt, who got up at 3 a.m. and drove some 20 miles from San Francisco to the Wal-Mart on Edgewater Drive in Oakland, spent $1,300 on gifts.

"This was my first time ever going out there," said VanderCourt, who snapped up trains, pajamas, clothing, food and a plasma TV for various members of her family. When she arrived the Wal-Mart at 4 a.m., about 300 people were in line, she said. The store opened at 5 a.m.

At Fry's in Fremont, the line was "hundreds upon hundreds long" by the time the store opened at 5 a.m., said Christopher Takeda of Fremont.

Fremont police estimate that about 4,000 shoppers lined up outside the Wal-Mart on Albrae Street. While parking remained hard to come by, police said they only had to break up one shoving match.

At the Best Buy in Union City, cars were lined up bumper-to-bumper about a half mile from the exit at 5 a.m.

At the Best Buy in Pleasant Hill, the line outside "wrapped around our store, and it took about 15 minutes to get everybody in" at 5 a.m., said Tom Morgenstern, a supervisor at the store. The Manteca Bass Pro Shops served 687 people between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. Friday.

Some of the hot items this season are large-screen HDTVs and laptops, he said.

Frank and Kathy Yim of Walnut Creek bagged two laptops at the Best Buy, paying $400 for one and $600 for the other.

Holly Smith of Pleasant Hill snagged a Blu-ray disc, another hot item, along with a TV for her son's college dorm room.

If there's one trend more often seen by retailers this year, it's the savvy shopper.

"Customers in the last seven days were definitely on scouting trips, doing their homework and asking more questions so they could come back and make the purchases (Friday)," Willis Niffenegger, manager at Sony Style in Stanford Shopping Center, said.

In general, "electronics are doing OK, but clothing stores aren't as busy, even though they're having sales," said Stacy Pei of Castro Valley as she shopped in the Old Navy store at the Bay Street shopping center in Emeryville.

GPS systems were in demand at Bass Pro Shops. Monique Santos drove nearly 60 miles from Berkeley to snatch the first spot in line to score a Garmin GPS for her husband when the store opened at 5 a.m.

Shoppers aren't foregoing the malls, but they are moderating their spending, many said.

"I am cutting back on purchases this year," said Smith of Pleasant Hill. Other than the Blu-ray and the TV, "we'll have smaller gifts like DVDs and books. I don't shop at Nordstrom any more. I go to Marshall's," she said.

"Definitely, we're cutting back," said Bev Guidry of Concord. "The adults in our family are picking names, and we'll only buy a gift for the person we pick."

Worries about reduced spending inspired blowout promotions by some stores. Bass Pro Shops threw a massive party from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday, cooking four turkeys, roasting marshmallows, making s'mores and showing 15 movies including "Miracle on 34th Street" on the side of the building. About 500 people showed up for the blowout, said Larry Leidelmeyer, the mad genius behind the promotion.

"We watched until 2:30 a.m. — until the sprinkler system went off," said Leidelmeyer.

Michelle Fox of El Cerrito had a different perspective.

"We always boycott Black Friday because it's a consumerism thing," she said. "Stay home instead and hang out with your family."

Retailers are also getting stiff competition from the Internet. While most stores were closed Thursday, customers didn't wait for Black Friday to start shopping. On Thanksgiving Day, PayPal reported a 16 percent year-over-year growth in sales. Also, it saw 30 percent more transactions than last year, which indicates that people are still buying presents but spending less per gift.

"We heard from our consumers and found that people are more conservative in their shopping this year because they are looking for ways to make the dollars last," said Amanda Pires, spokeswoman for PayPal. "We think online will continue to become a brighter shopping spot than offline."

Janis Mara can be reached at 925 952-2671 or jmara@bayareanewsgroup.com. David Morrill can be reached at 925-977-8534.