WASHINGTON ( MainStreet) -- If summer vacationers are convinced they're not in the middle of holiday shopping season, they've been getting too much sun.
While the American consumer has been flirting with melanoma and sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic boxed in by mobile homes and kayak-toting crossovers, the retail world has been preparing for Halloween, Thanksgiving and the winter holidays. Considering what's on the line, buyers who are already seeing orange-and-black displays at supermarkets or the local CVS (CVS - Get Report) and hearing the word "Christmas" bandied about every so often should consider themselves lucky stores have held off this long.
Total retail sales from April through June were up 7.7% from last year, and while much of that stems from a nearly 22% hike in gasoline spending, improvements at apparel stores including The Gap (GPS - Get Report) and American Apparel (APP - Get Report) (5.8%), general merchandise stores including Target (TGT) and Kohl's (KSS - Get Report) (3.7%) and online outlets such as Amazon (AMZN - Get Report) (13.9%) have given retailers some reason for optimism. The recent debt fight and downgrade have eroded that a bit, as the National Association of Retailers predicts flat back-to-school sales for grades K-12 and a decline in college back-to-school spending from an estimated $836 per family last year to $809 this year.
That's a paper clip in a backpack compared with the potential retail windfall that lies ahead. The $19.6 billion market research firm IBISWorld estimates was spent on back-to-school shopping last year eclipsed the $6 billion spent on Halloween, but doesn't come close to the $30.5 billion spent on Thanksgiving and the $135.6 billion Americans parted with during the winter holiday season.Bookbags and calculators may be at the front of the store now, but in the stockrooms and far corners of department stores, discount stores and health and beauty supply shops, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Don't believe us? According to the retail experts we spoke with, Halloween and the other holidays are already here if you look hard enough. Here are just five examples of how it's already the holiday season in the retail world while the rest of America is still struggling to make it to Labor Day: