Seattle-area shoppers turned out in huge numbers this morning to kick-start the 2008 holiday sales season, lured by "door-buster" discounts, freebies and other special promotions.

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The malls were packed, the lines long, and the bargains big.

Shoppers turned out in huge numbers this morning to kick-start the 2008 holiday sales season, lured by “door-buster” discounts, freebies and other special promotions.

Retailers seemed to outdo themselves, plastering windows and doorways with signs aimed at shoppers looking for a bargain on everything from cashmere sweaters to flat-screen TVs.

This season could be make-or-break for many retailers hoping to turn around months of declining sales amid a global economic crisis.

The National Retail Federation predicts it will be the toughest season since 2002, but others say “worst in decades” is more like it. Joblessness is on the rise, stock markets are down, the housing market remains in turmoil, and credit is tightening.

“Black Friday champ”

For some shoppers who reached the Best Buy store in Tukwila by 3:30 a.m. today, it was already too late.

The staff had handed out all its discount tickets that gave earlybirds an $899 price for a 50-inch Panasonic Plasma TV, a roughly $400 discount, while supplies lasted. There were up to 800 people in line by then, a spokesman estimated, and by the time doors opened at 4:57 a.m., the queue swelled to well beyond 1,000. Many got discount slips for other items, as well as morning special prices.

At the head of the line was Tommy Truong, a 17-year-old Kentridge High School student, nicknamed “Black Friday champ” by one of two policemen watching the crowd. On Tuesday, Truong surveilled the store to ensure nobody camped yet, then he set up lodgings Wednesday afternoon with a couple relatives. “We are not crazy, just [heart] Black Friday,” a handwritten sign said.

Thanksgiving dinner was hot dogs and ramen noodles, warmed on a portable stove. Dressed in two pair of shorts and long johns, he stayed warm in a tent, and played a bit of ultimate Frisbee in the parking lot on the holiday.

Truong carried a shopping list for extended family: a couple laptop computers, two TVs, a GPS navigation system for his mom, a PlayStation, a digital camera. Between his wages supervising neighborhood festival rides, and his family’s catering business, he was flush enough to come back for a third year in a row.

“Even though the economy’s bad, they cut back on vacations. We’re doing fine. We’ve got a lot of money to spend, because we don’t spend it all year,” he said.

Blue-shirted store employees yelled congratulations and “Run!” to the shoppers entering the store, where boxes and shelves are arranged to block line-cutting at popular departments. Best Buy does a good job keeping people from being trampled, Truong said.

Free snow globes

The mood was festive inside J.C. Penney, the first big store to open in the Westfield Southcenter Mall. Smiling workers handed out 4,500 snow globes to the early risers.

By 4:07, Genie Coston had rung up an MP3 player for her grandson, at a 75 percent discount, and had to scurry out for the 5 a.m. opening at Toys ‘R Us. “They go so fast,” she said of morning specials.

Some said recession was precisely why they rushed the mall.

“Your $500 is going to go a lot farther than any other day,” said Varina Duffy, who came from Buckley with her sister, Vanessa Hickam. The pair woke up at 3 a.m., put on gray sweatsuits, and drove to Southcenter. They were delighted to find baggy South Pole jeans for Varina’s son for $18.

The sisters planned to get nearly all their Christmas shopping done by 11 a.m. today, or whenever the money ran out. Their budget was $800 less than usual, they said.

West Seattle Target

More than 150 people lined up outside a Target store in West Seattle before 6 a.m., hoping to snag deals like $20 DVD movie releases for $13 and $200 GPS navigation systems for $100.

Tim and Jean Cruden, a retired couple from Burien, emerged from the store five minutes after it opened carrying two newly purchased navigation systems. The Crudens said they’re more bargain-driven than usual this year because of the turmoil on Wall Street, which has caused their retirement fund to lose nearly a third of its value.

“Things are going to be tight. There’s no question about that,” Tim Cruden said, while his wife hurried the conversation along, noting that they were off to Sears to buy a tool set marked down 50 percent.

Chanelle Roer, 25, of West Seattle, arrived at about 5:30 in search of a $160 portable DVD player for $88. Roer, the mother of a 10-month-old girl, said she swore off shopping the morning after Thanksgiving six years ago, while waiting outside a Wal-Mart in San Antonio, Tx., to buy a TV.

“It was crazy, so I never wanted to do that again,” Roer said, adding that deals like $72 off a DVD player changed her mind this year. “If there’s something on sale, I’ll get it.”

But Shelley Hadaway, a mother of three from West Seattle, had a totally different reason for heading to Target before sunrise. “My husband was snoring, and I was awake, so I figured, why not?” she said.

Seattle Times business reporter Amy Martinez and Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this report.