'Twas the month before Christmas,
When all through the malls
The shoppers were stirring
At the early bird deal calls

Yes, the holiday shopping season kicked off nicely on Friday. Thanksgiving leftovers may have been chilling in the fridge, but it was a hankering for something new that drove buyers to the stores in droves.

Retail monitoring specialist ShopperTrak estimates that $7.2 billion in merchandise was sold on Friday, a 4.8% improvement over last year. Then again, you had to figure that all of the pieces were falling into place for retail. An improving economy works wonders in terms of bulking up seasonal stockings.

Doorbuster deals for early risers at places like Toys "R" Us (NYSE:TOY) and Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) were mere formalities. Bargain DVD players offered even at places like Linens 'n Things (NYSE:LIN) proved to be unnecessary carrots. The shoppers were coming anyway.

Once again, discounters look to be enjoying another healthy season. Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) rang up a record $1.52 billion in sales on Friday. That is 6.3% better than last year's showing, or more impressively, a 21.6% spike over 2001's lackluster start.

But last year also started out strong before sales dwindled as December dragged. Holiday shopping traditionally peaks the weekend before Christmas, so it's too early to tell if 2003 will be gift-wrapped with a bow or a noose. However, the biggest reason to be optimistic lies not in the bargain peddlers like Wal-Mart or Target (NYSE:TGT), but in the momentum of the luxury retailers.

High-end chains like Tiffany (NYSE:TIF) and Sharper Image (NASDAQ:SHRP) recently posted double-digit gains in same-store-sales for the third quarter. That kind of health heading into the critical seasonal quarter cannot be ignored.

If spreading holiday cheer involves handing over some plastic in the coming weeks, do it responsibly. The retailers will thank you later.

Where you on Friday morning, say, around 6 a.m.? Were you camping out at your nearest Wal-Mart or did you have a more relaxed Thanksgiving holiday weekend? Will Wal-Mart continue to fare well this season or is it time for the full-price retailers to have a shot at the holiday season market share? All this and more -- in the Wal-Mart discussion board. Only on Fool.com.