Undated (AP) _ Retailers wallowing through the second year of a damaging slump will have at least one, brief shining moment to recall in 1988.

Christmas shoppers crowded stores around the country Friday in a post- Thanksgiving rush worthy of its traditional billing as the busiest day of the year for merchants.

Malls and downtowns were crowded early with people racing to snap up electronic gear, Nintendo video games, cashmere sweaters, customized luggage, Barbie dolls and kitchen appliances.

Part of the spurt was credited to post-election relief among consumers, but the main motivation came from the retailers themselves, who tightened inventories and cooked up promotions in an effort to reverse their sagging fortunes.

The strategy led to warnings of shortages and to giveaways no self- respecting shopper could resist.

''This is serious. I set my alarm for the first time in my life to go shopping,'' said Lynn Loull, who arrived at Emporium-Capwell in San Francisco at 8:40 a.m. ''It's going well. I've gotten four people done in an hour-and-a- half.''

The 7 a.m. shoppers at a K mart in suburban New Orleans included Charlene Jones and her sons Nathaniel, 7, and Leonard, 5.

''I woke up the boys and said 'Let's go,''' she said.

Store managers around the country found customers lined up to greet them when they opened the doors.

''There's stroller gridlock in places,'' said Susan Inskeep, 56, who had brought her grandson to the Galleria Glendale in suburban Los Angeles.

In Boise, Idaho, where last month's opening of Boise Towne Square ended residents' 20-year-long wait for a modern shopping mall, crowds swelled to 60,000, double the average daily traffic.

In Lexington, Ky., crowds were ''probably the best I've seen in my 30 years with McAlpins,'' said Scott Overley of the regional department store chain. ''It's just a blowout on everything.''

While most retailers and industry analysts had predicted a modest 5 percent improvement in sales over last year, activity began picking up after the elections earlier this month.

Whether it was an expression of confidence in President-elect Bush or just plain relief at having put politics to rest, spending increased noticeably even before Thanksgiving.

''People have loosened up more,'' said Paul Lantz, floor manager at Toys 'R' Us in Raleigh, N.C. ''They are feeling a little more relaxed at this time.''

They were anxious about the availability of popular gifts, however.

Melanie Bergeron of Bourg, La., traveled 90 minutes to a Toys R Us looking for a toy grocery-store checkout scanner. She said she hadn't known such a toy existed until her daughter asked for it, and it wasn't in the stores in Houma, the city nearest her home.

Retailers said they were well stocked for the surge, but they also agreed close inventory control might stave off the disastrous markdowns they were forced to make last Christmas.

''Our inventories are better fine-tuned than last year, which should result in less of a panic-sale environment,'' said Gerald Gura, president and chief executive officer of Cherry, Webb & Touraine, a chain of retail fashion stores based in South Attleboro, Mass.

Stores also plied customers with inventive promotional gimmicks - like early-bird sales, giveaways and visits from fairy-tale and cartoon characters.

In Florida, Maison Blanche stores advertised ''a CrackerJack of a sale'' and gave away 4,500 boxes of CrackerJacks, some with diamond rings or gift certificates inside.

In Green Bay, Wis., more than a thousand people lined up before sunrise for a 7 a.m. coupon giveaway at the H.C. Prange store.

Elsewhere, Disney characters decorated the corridors of the Cinderella City shopping mall in Englewood, Colo.; a mall in Jersey City, N.J., beamed in the cartoon space family the Jetsons; and Santa Claus showed up almost everywhere.

The lure of Santa may have inflated the size of the crowds, according to some skeptics. At Macy's in Manhattan, one of the nation's largest shrines of the season, the toy department and Santa Land were packed while traffic in the rest of the store appeared light.

''Today we're just looking around and taking the kid to see Santa Claus,'' said Louise Hickey, who was browsing through the Colonie Center shopping mall in Albany, N.Y., with her husband and grandson. ''We'll do the heavy shopping later.''

Layton Widner, manager of Wal-Mart in Decatur, Ala., said buying was heading in a practical direction.

''People are buying the basics,'' he said. ''There are no hot items in toys like the Cabbage Patch doll of previous years.''