It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas - really early

Like it or not, the holiday shopping season, in all its gift-giving cheer and consumerist frenzy, is well under way.

It began even earlier than usual this year, with a few stores displaying Christmas items in July.

Many share that frustration, finding the September kickoff jarring and distasteful. Those who lament the relentless commercialization of a religious holiday find it particularly galling.

But stores are only responding to consumer demand, retailers and analysts say.

"If retailers weren't successful with this strategy, those shelves, which are valuable real estate, would be shelving other things," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation, the industry's largest trade group. "If you're not doing this, you are just handing over market share to the competition."

Some 40 percent of consumers begin their shopping before Halloween, the group has found, usually starting off with decorations before moving on to gifts.

Despite the evidence of early shoppers, Krugman concedes retailers walk a fine line. Deck the halls or crank up the Christmas tunes too soon, and customers will recoil in disgust.

As a result, many stores try to let shoppers know the merchandise is available without coming on too strong. "They are not in that place yet," he said.

But with more people struggling with monthly bills and reluctant to run up their credit cards, the long view is a growing necessity.

Stores such as Sears, Lowe's, and Home Depot say many customers can't afford to do all their shopping at once, and putting merchandise out earlier gives them a chance to plan and stagger their purchases.

"It allows customers to see what we have over the course of the fall," said Cheryl Slavinsky, spokeswoman at Rite Aid, which rolled out its Christmas line over the course of a month once the summer stock sold off. "And it allows them to spread their holiday purchases out over several months."

- The Boston Globe

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