On the busiest shopping day of the year, the phrase, "The early bird catches the worm," usually prompts a comparison of shoppers as the bird and merchants the worm.

But while plenty of consumers could be found braving Friday's morning cold for a chance to snap up seasonal bargains, several of the valley's largest retailers set out to reverse these traditional roles - opening their doors as early as 7 a.m. and luring shoppers with hourly specials and plans to remain open around the clock through the weekend.So far, the bait has worked as retailers and consumers kicked-off the holiday shopping season Friday in the usual hectic, frantic fashion.

"We had people waiting at the door at 7 a.m.," Chuck Peden, Utah-Idaho regional manager for Fred Meyer, said from the Sandy store. "It's worked out real well, there isn't a shopping cart to be had."

Peden said shoppers were arriving in waves as they cycled in and out of three- and four-hour specials going on at suburban department stores.

"It's packed," said Toni Carter, marketing director for Valley Fair Mall in West Valley City.

Don and Phyllis Selin were out chasing bargains at 7 a.m. for their 10 grandchildren. While they had yet to find any Barbie dolls left on the shelves, "We did get some deals we weren't even looking for," Don said.

As is usually the case, downtown malls resembled a ghost town early in the day, compared to bustling, shoulder-to-shoulder traffic found in suburban shopping centers.

At Crossroads Mall and ZCMI Center most stores didn't open until 10 a.m. "It doesn't really get crowded until about noon," a spokeswoman for Crossroads said.

Retailers anticipate the trend of brisk sales before Thanksgiving to continue Friday and through the Christmas season.

"We do more for this single day than any other day," Brent Baker, director of advertising for ZCMI, said of the annual day-after-Thanksgiving kick-off."We really gear up. We can't be complacent about it."

Most large retailers began preparing for the 1988 Christmas season before 1987 was even over. For the past 12 months buyers and managers have been planning holiday inventory, trimmings and promotions for this year's shoppers.

Thousands of part-time employees have been signed up for extra help as many stores extend their shopping hours. Shopko, the Wasatch Front's latest player in the discount store wars, has advertised round-the-clock store hours through Sunday, while most stores will open an hour early and close an hour later from now until Christmas.

Among the most touted downtown promotions is ZCMI's 5:30 p.m. unveiling of its Main Street display windows. Baker said the six windows will depict the evolution of Santa Claus through elaborate displays titled "Christmas of Legend."

No new toys are expected to debut during the last month of this year. Last year's popular Nintendo computer games will dominate sales along with the old favorites like the Barbie doll, according to Don Smith, manager of Hammond Toys Crossroads Mall store.

"There is really nothing new this year. It's all been around before," he said.