Deep discounts and special deals before dawn drove millions of people to the nation's stores and malls Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season.

One big disappointment: Not enough Furby dolls to go around.

``It was chaos,'' said Valeri Davenport, who didn't get one of the furry, talking Furby dolls, but walked out of a K-B Toys store in Independence, Mo., with six bags of toys. ``They opened the door at six, and people were shoving one another. Everyone jumped on the Furbies. You couldn't even get to the shelf.''

Lines began forming at some stores in the middle of the night, and traffic continued to build throughout the day. Discount stores were the big winners, enticing shoppers with cheap prices and a wide selection.

Even with the big crowds, it wasn't clear how much they spent. In recent years, consumers have done more browsing than buying the day after Thanksgiving, once the busiest shopping day of the year.

``Today, I'm here just to get ideas,'' said Carol Luberda, who spent part of Friday at the Carson Pirie Scott department store in Chicago.

Whether people were looking or buying, the stores were packed Friday. And retailers hope the crowds to get even bigger in the weeks leading up to Christmas, thanks to the recent rise in consumer confidence and sharp gains in the stock market.

That's a much better outlook than most merchants had just a few months ago, when many feared that Christmas sales would suffer from global financial and political turmoil.

Despite their optimism, many merchants went to great lengths on Friday to encourage shoppers to buy now, rather than wait in hopes for bargains closer to or after Christmas.

Indeed, 11 percent of people did their shopping after the holidays last year, compared with the 9 percent who bought gifts during Thanksgiving weekend, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade group.

The biggest crowds were at the discount stores, like Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart, with shoppers scooping up everything from low-price VCRs to home furnishings

The Disney Store drew shoppers by offering only 200 of its $6 holiday Winnie the Pooh bears per store. K-B Toys, meantime, not only had lines for Furby, but also was giving away Tickle Me Elmo dolls to anyone who spent more than $100.

When the doors opened at a K-B store outside Denver, ``we saw people running to get in,'' said shopper Cynthia Hayot. ``They knocked out displays and ran people over.''

Anxious shoppers also barreled through the exit doors at the Best Buy electronics store in Des Moines, Iowa, eager to get first dibs on the sale merchandise.

``Some people just can't beat a bargain,'' said Sharon Calder, of nearby Ankeny, who witnessed the stampede at the Best Buy store.

The great deals at Gateway Mall in Lincoln, Neb., got Gerette Matulka in the buying mood weeks earlier than in the past. Same was true for Celest Forbes, who traveled to a Kmart in Tulsa, Okla., before dawn to save $30 on a bicycle.

``They run the sales that draw you in,'' Ms. Forbes said. ``''For me, it has to be at least 20 percent off. That's the only reason I come to the stores.''

While anecdotal evidence from shoppers Friday indicated that buying was up this year, retailers still have doubts about how the season will turn out. The first weekend of the holiday season isn't necessarily a gauge of how the remaining weeks until Christmas will go.

In fact, in rankings based on what shoppers spent on a given day, the day after Thanksgiving hasn't made it to the top four since 1993.

Merchants fear that stock market volatility or unusual weather in the coming weeks could keep shoppers home. And they already know some shoppers are on a tight budget.

Diane Hernandez of West Los Angeles will scale back this year because she's seen a rise in her cost of living. Meg Patton of Cleveland says she isn't going overboard with Christmas gifts because she's nervous about the direction of the economy.

There are those, too, who can't get into the holiday shopping spirit.

``I'd rather have a root canal than sit at a mall,'' said Joel Sterk, an insurance agent from Waupun, Wis., sat on a bench and read a novel while his wife went shopping.