LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: Here's another reason to fish the plastic out of your wallet. The back-to-school shopping season has officially begun. Or at least that's what retailers want you to think. The first day of class for most students may still be a month or two away. But as NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, the retail industry is eager for a head start.

HANSI LO WANG: Ah, July, the season of beach getaways and backyard cookouts. It's, well, how did that old Staples commercial describe it?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) It's the most wonderful time of the year.

It's that time of year again. It's back-to-school time at Staples.

WANG: And at almost every other retail store out there. Just walk into a nearby Target and you'll be greeted by banners spelling out "back to school" next to photos of shiny new school supplies and smiling children. Some parents, like Felicia Powers of Columbia, Maryland, say it's too soon.

FELICIA POWERS: I resent the signs up now.


POWERS: Summer just started. Let kids have their summer.

WANG: But for retailers, it's never too early to start cashing in on the second most lucrative shopping season of the year.

JEVIN EAGLE, EXECUTIVE VP OF MERCHANDISING AND MARKETING, STAPLES: For Staples, back to school is almost like Christmas.

WANG: Jevin Eagle is in charge of merchandising and marketing for Staples. The office supply chain recently offered packs of pens and erasers for as low as pennies to entice early-bird shoppers.

STAPLES: The economy is not as good as we would all like it to be. There are a lot of people out of work, and we really want to have great, hot deals for everyone.

CHRIS CHRISTOPHER: Consumers and parents don't feel very optimistic about the future.

WANG: Chris Christopher is an economist with IHS Global Insight He says recent dips in consumer confidence means shoppers will be more tentative about their purchases. June's dismal jobs report also dampens the outlook for this year's back-to-school sales. Last month, falling gas prices and aggressive discounting did bring in more business for department, clothing and discount stores. But Christopher says retailers should expect only a modest bump from back-to-school sales by the end of this summer.

By the way, the end of the summer no longer means the end of back-to-school shopping.

CHRISTOPHER: The back-to-school season is very close to the holiday season. And what might happen is there will still be some back-to-school shopping in October and November.

WANG: And that means retailers have to be ready for back-to-school shoppers even after the first school bell rings.

Pam Goodfellow is a consumer insights director for BIGresearch. She says in this economy, more families are taking their time to prowl through store aisles and online before striking with a purchase.

PAM GOODFELLOW: So if a sale on notebooks this week doesn't look so great, they're going to pass it up. And they're going to wait, and they're going to wait.

WANG: Some shoppers wait for sales tax holidays in states like Missouri, Texas and Virginia, when clothing and school supplies are exempt from sales tax. But 9-year-old Jacob Heywood can't wait.

JACOB HEYWOOD: Mom, do we have enough pens at home?


HEYWOOD: Do we have enough pens at home?

WANG: Jacob and his mother, Ari, stop by a Target just to pick up some snacks for a family road trip to Virginia. But they couldn't resist checking out the new displays of composition notebooks and pencil grips.

HEYWOOD: Well, I'm trying�to convince my son to kind of hold off and get the best deals. But we're both so excited. We can't stop ourselves. It's ridiculous.


WANG: Before long, Jacob flashes a toothy smile to convince his mother to add a few extra items to their shopping cart, including a $9 pencil box.

HEYWOOD: And I got an $80 backpack.

HEYWOOD: That's true. That's true. He has an LL Bean backpack that he loves and it's kind of pricey, but, again, for school. Anything for school.

WANG: That's music to the ears of retailers, who will be listening for more signs of consumer confidence.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

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