Some arrived with plans that would rival a Special Forces strike. Others merely plunged merrily into the shopping-bag-toting masses to the beat of holiday jingles and acres of poinsettias for the thrill of participating in the Thanksgiving weekend tradition of storming the malls. All came looking for bargains.

Black Friday may still officially kick off the traditional start to the holiday shopping season, but this year stores were ringing up sales the night before in signs of an intensifying courtship of consumers in economically sober times.

The new shop-around-the-clock holiday seemed to sit well with consumers and retailers. Walmart said its stores nationwide rang up its best Black Friday sales ever -- just as Friday was beginning. Between 8 p.m. and midnight, Walmart processed nearly 10 million in-store transactions, selling nearly 5,000 items a second, the company said.

The clock had not yet stuck 4 a.m. when the holiday chestnut "Silver Bells" filled the air in Macy's at Westfield Valley Fair in Santa Clara as a steady river of consumers -- weighed down as much by packages as a lack of sleep -- flowed through the department store.

San Jose resident Mario Garcia and his family, overstuffed bags at their feet, sat contentedly during a brief respite. Though dawn was still hours away, they had already logged about eight hours of shopping -- and had the spoils to show for it, including a Nikon camera for 50 percent off at $400, sheets that usually sell for $30 for $5, $60 video games for $10 each.

Sleep deprivation didn't seem to slow holiday shoppers.

"It's an adrenaline rush -- kind of like being on a roller coaster or riding a motorcycle," said Laura Chin, a graduate student in public administration visiting Valley Fair from Stockton. After starting the night before at 10, buying $5 sweatpants at Target, she had hit as many as 20 stores by 5 a.m.

With a slowly improving economy, the holiday shopping season this year seems more of a sprint than a marathon as stores compete fiercely to grab the attention of consumers early before they spend everything they have budgeted.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group, calls it "the Christmas crush" because retailers "are trying to crush the competition by having earlier hours and better deals."

Gone are the days when Americans whimsically piled up credit card debt and retailers needed only to throw a few door-buster sales to attract the free-spending hordes.

The Friday crowds appeared thinner than in past years, which experts attributed to all-night sales at malls and retail chains Thursday as well as increasing numbers of Americans shopping online. By the end of the holidays, economists and consultants estimate, 2012 will show a modest uptick in seasonal spending of about 3 or 4 percent above last year.

Not long after the Thanksgiving turkey had been eaten, shoppers stormed the stores.

"It was worth it," said Tatiana Harrison, a Union City resident who had just finished shopping at a Target store in Fremont's Pacific Commons mall Thursday night. She paid $99 for a Power Wheels toy vehicle that normally sells for $400.

The Target store in Fremont was just the start for Harrison and her friend Brianna Curley of Union City. Their next stop was the Great Mall in Milpitas.

Kelly Foehner and her friend Amy Fulmer said their predawn visit to Stoneridge mall in Pleasanton was their first Black Friday shopping trip during the wee hours.

"It's crazy here," Fulmer, a Pleasanton resident, said as she looked around the throng of shoppers who had packed into Stoneridge.

They attempted to shop at the Victoria's Secret store but had to leave because it was so crowded. Just after midnight, large bins in the store had already been emptied by voracious consumers.

At Swarovski, a store in the Paragon Outlets mall in Livermore selling Austrian crystal, shoppers lined up for up to four hours to take advantage of 50 to 60 percent discounts on jewelry and earrings. "There's so many people our associates can't handle it," said Swarovski sales associate Lauren Rinehart.

Shoppers who had arrived at Paragon before dawn reported long lines at stores like Prada and Dooney & Bourke. Burdened by handfuls of bags, Debbie Eaton of Dublin said she been at the mall since 3 a.m. and crowds were heavy. At 8:30 a.m., she showed off several purses she'd bought from Kate Spade; normally $400, Eaton picked them up for less than $200.

"I tried to get in twice in the morning and couldn't make it," she said of Kate Spade. "But everyone here is being civil and in good spirits."

Gavin Farnam, general manager at Valley Fair, said the extended hours both increased shoppers and eased the daylong crush as consumers time-shifted their shopping, with some coming at midnight and others preferring to sleep in and arrive later in the morning Friday. Overall, he expects mall foot traffic to jump by the "high single-digits or low double-digits" this Black Friday.

The extended hours "helps with the traffic and parking," said Farnam, who worked 24 hours straight. "I saw a lot of people carrying a lot of bags. There were a lot of discounts from retailers."

One risk for retailers, though, is if American shoppers get conditioned to open their wallets only when deals are to be had, said Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a retail consultant.

That's exactly the mentality San Jose residents Garcia and his wife, Jenea, have embraced.

"We are coming out and getting what is on sale," she said. "If we see something we like but it's not on sale, we leave it."

Beemer expects consumers to now "hibernate" until the last five days of the shopping season. Then they will be looking for even bigger bargains.

Staff writers George Avalos, Tracey Seipel, Jeremy Thomas, Peter Delevett, Pete Carey and Lisa White contributed to this report. Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496; follow him at Twitter.com/svwriter.