) -- Summer may finally have reared its hot, humid head in many parts of the country this week, but retailers already have visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads.

And it's not because they have a particular fondness for carols and gingerbread men.

Indeed, as the usually reliable back-to-school season is already

proving to be a non-factor this year

, retailers are, out of sheer necessity, shifting their focus to the next major selling event: the holidays.

And while analysts are predicting dismal fall numbers, they're postulating that the weeks leading up to Christmas could well be merry. And the proof in that pudding should soon come, as retailers report their second-quarter earnings -- and second-half outlooks -- over the next several weeks, starting with


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Wal-Mart Stores

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J.C. Penney

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Abercrombie & Fitch

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this week.

The numbers themselves will likely come as little surprise to investors, given that retailers have been revising and updating guidance throughout the quarter. Still, other clues in the reports should shed some insight into the upcoming holiday season.

For starters, advises Scott Krugman, spokesperson at the National Retail Federation, look to the merchandise that's leading profit increases or decreases. "See if necessities are still driving sales, or if discretionary apparel and accessories are having some pull," he says.

Jewelry sales, for example, could be a good indicator for recovery. "If we see jewelry start to improve, it means consumers are willing to spend on other things besides socks and underwear," Krugman says.

Needham analyst Christine Chen also says to pay close attention to the tone of the companies. Does management believe we have reached bottom or are they expecting more weakness?

And while retail investors have been bemoaning the increase in saving by consumers, Eric Beder, analyst at Brean Murray Carret, notes that today's air-tight bank accounts could be the holiday season's saving grace. As Beder says, all retailers need after spending the year drastically cutting the fat in their business is a flicker of hope from consumers.

"It won't take much to beat last year's dismal numbers," says Beder, who said he expects holiday sales to fall somewhere between 2% down and 2% up. "There were very few companies that didn't have a miserable second half."

It should, of course, come as no surprise that discounters like

Wal-Mart Stores

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and off-pricers like


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Ross Stores

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will be the first out of the recession, Krugman says. Wal-Mart and


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, he predicts, will also fair especially well when it comes to consumer electronics for the holiday.

What might be a surprise, though, is that many analysts expect the luxury market to follow close behind the discounters. Cohen predicts



could be one of the leaders this holiday -- a shocking notion, consider that the luxury retailer was one of the worst performers in the sector last year, the purveyor of 75% off promotions.

Cohen, though, says that Saks has shaped up since last year. "They are making strides to redefining who they are," he says. "They got very lean and created three tiers of product to diversify their customer base. They are not trying to just sell to that small luxury customer."

Then there are the home-improvement retailers, such as

Home Depot

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, which could finally see a bump after taking a beating amid the housing crisis, as consumers take on more do-it-yourself projects to prepare their homes for the holidays, Cohen said.

And just because back-to-school is expected to be blah, Chen advises to not dismiss teen retailers like




American Eagle Outfitters

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Abercrombie & Fitch

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"When mom and dad feel better, their initial thought is spending on kids first, not themselves," Chen says.

Couple those trends with inventory levels that are extremely lean, across the board, and blockbuster sales like the 75% off we saw holiday season could well be non-existent this time around.

"Consumers have been groomed to look for sales, but retailers are trying to wean them off discounts," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group. "Retailers are not as worried about having a huge amount of goods left over, but they will still be the first one to blink if consumers hold out for sales."

Indeed, if economic conditions continue to improve -- or at the very least, don't get any worse -- inventories may actually be too low, constraining top-line growth. As a result, Cohen says, success this holiday season must be measured not by growth, but by profit.

Which is, of course, the more traditional way to evaluate business. And what's better during the holidays than tradition?

-- Reported by Jeanine Poggi in New York

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