Americans headed to department stores in droves today to kick off the holiday shopping season, though many said they had pared back how much they would spend on family members and on themselves.

Black Friday, the day after US Thanksgiving, is often the single busiest shopping day of the crucial holiday season, which accounts for nearly one-fifth of the retail industry's annual sales.

The annual festive ritual of American consumerism is now being monitored closely for signs the US shopper is again ready to propel the economy forward, after the global financial crisis last year led to the worst holiday season in nearly four decades.

Up to 134 million US consumers said they may shop for holiday gifts this weekend from Black Friday until Sunday, according to the National Retail Federation.

That is up from last year's survey, taken weeks after the global financial crisis erupted, but still below consumer Black Friday plans reported ahead of the shopping season in 2007.

Discount retailers like Wal-Mart Stores and Target are set to see the heaviest traffic over the holiday weekend, followed by department store chains like Macy's and Kohl's.

They and their industry peers have spent the past year shrinking inventory, shutting stores or scaling back new openings, to avoid steep discounts and protect profits.

Some industry experts expect a strong turnout on the Black Friday weekend, but cautioned that did not mean a strong holiday season, as shopping tails off in the weeks before Christmas.

The unsettled state of the US economy, with a 26-year high in unemployment and tighter access to credit, has industry holiday sales forecasts varying widely from a decline of 3% to an increase of 2%.

Early hopes for a consumer-led recovery have pushed retail shares up 47% this year, compared with a 23% rise for the Standard & Poor's 500 Index.

While most research in the last two months showed shoppers planned to spend less or the same in 2009 from a year ago during the holidays, that stance may be softening.

Nearly one-third of consumers surveyed by Deloitte said they now expect to spend more than they had planned a month or two ago.