The 2007 holiday shopping season kicked off on Friday with crowds of shoppers, many braving the bitter cold, snagging early bargains on one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

Analysts expected moderate sales this year as consumers struggle with the slumping housing market, a credit crunch, rising food and fuel costs and uncertainty about their jobs.

At the cavernous Palisades Mall in the New York City suburb of West Nyack, which opened its doors at 3:00 a.m., lines formed outside of the Apple Inc, Macy's Inc, Old Navy and Circuit City Inc stores. Many in the crowd were sustained by offers of free coffee.

Known as Black Friday, the day after the U.S. Thanksgiving Day holiday marks the first day of the holiday shopping season for most consumers and a time to snag cheap deals, freebies and sales.

Black Friday once marked the day many retailers turned a profit, or went into the black, for the year.

It used to be the busiest shopping day of the year, but procrastinators and others looking for last-minute gifts have transferred that honor to the Saturday before Christmas.

The Thanksgiving weekend can make up as much as 10 percent of all holiday sales, according to retail analyst Dana Telsey of Telsey Advisory Group, while the ten days before Christmas can account for 40 percent of the total, she said.

On Black Friday, many retailers open their doors well before dawn, offering deep discounts. This year J.C. Penney Co Inc opened at 4 a.m., Toys R Us and Best Buy Co Inc opened at 5:00 and Macy's Inc opened its stores at 6:00.

Some malls even opened shortly after midnight.

At a Best Buy store in Geneva, Illinois, about 150 people lined up in bitter cold weather that some veteran Black Friday shoppers said was the worst they'd seen yet. They also said the crowds were far smaller than previous years.

Adam Wishne, a 19-year-old student from Geneva, was the first in line with two friends, having pitched a tent at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Like many people in line, Wishne and his friends were looking to buy laptop computers. Best Buy had a limited number of Sony laptops for $399 and Toshiba laptops for $229 -- and high-definition televisions.

Despite the tent, we've been freezing almost the whole time since we got here, Wishne said. But it was worth it for the great deals we got ... These will make for excellent presents, he said.

Between them, Wishne and his friends bought at least five laptops and two TVs as gifts.

The National Retail Federation, a trade group, expects total holiday retail sales, including November and December, to rise 4 percent to $474.5 billion this year.

That would mark the slowest holiday sales growth since 2002, when sales rose 1.3 percent, and would fall below the ten-year holiday sales average of a 4.8 percent increase.

But at New York-area Sears and Kmart stores, the crowds waiting outside were thicker than last year, according to spokeswoman Alison Kmiotek, who said the big sellers were digital cameras, televisions and toys.

(Reporting by Martinne Geller; Additional reporting by Justin Grant and Franklin Paul in New York and Nick Carey in Chicago; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)