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 (Stock Quote: CVS) 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 (Stock Quote: GPS) and American Apparel (Stock Quote: APP) (5.8%), general merchandise stores including Target (Stock Quote: TGT) and Kohl's (Stock Quote: KSS) (3.7%) and online outlets such as Amazon (Stock Quote: AMZN) (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:
The Halloween candy is out.
It's not everywhere yet, but that's how it starts. A convenience store here, a health and beauty supply store there, a little space in the seasonal aisle of a local SuperValu (Stock Quote: SVU) subsidiary later and you're knee deep in "fun sized" Snickers and packs of Smarties seconds after the last Labor Day traveler gets home.
"The advantage for Halloween goods to be out early is that there's so much shopping for back-to-school that some retailers feel like even if they don't buy it now, they'll see it," says Daniel Butler, vice president of retail operations at the National Retail Federation. "They'll remember seeing it at that store and go back and get it."