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Hurry up, Santa! Holiday deals start this weekend

Friday, 13 Sep 2013 | 4:01 PM ET
Shopper at Toys "R" Us
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Shopper at Toys "R" Us

This week, a million New York school children headed back to classrooms with summer vacation still fresh in their minds and much of the country sweltering as temperatures hovered in the 80s.

So naturally, with Halloween still 48 days away, retailers are rolling out Christmas programs.

Huh?

There's been criticism for Christmas Creep from consumers and media alike, but don't expect the trend to shift.

Summer was a bummer for store sales, and so far signs are back-to-school spending is sluggish, too. All that makes the holiday season even more important for nervous retailers. So while Christmas in September may be off-putting to many consumers, some companies are willing to take the risk to grab early holiday dollars.

"The consumer is fickle, and really buying when he or she wants to buy," Women's Wear Daily Editor James Fallon told CNBC. "You're already seeing an earlier holiday, expect Christmas before Thanksgiving. … There's going to be a lot of [marketing] noise."

Layaway kicks off early

Kmart commercials hit the airwaves as it began its no-fee layaway program this week for Web or in-store purchases through Nov. 23. The unit of Sears Holdings told CNBC that it "offers both eight- and 12-week layaway contracts, so our Shop Your Way members and customers can plan in advance in order to take advantage of layaway for holiday purchases. The advertising schedule is a reflection of this longer lead time."

On Friday, Wal-Mart kicked off its holiday layaway program, and this year there's no fee to open an account. And in case Santa needs gift ideas, the world's largest retailer also launched its "Chosen by Kids" top toy list pairing the unveiling with lower prices on "hundreds" of dolls, action figures, ride-on toys and more.

Trade-ins: The new battle in retail
Competition for foot traffic intensifies as Wal-Mart launches an in-store trade-in program, CNBC's Courtney Reagan reports.

Not to be outdone, Toys "R" Us announced its holiday programs Thursday, including layaway and rewards for shopping early. From now through October, Rewards "R" Us members can earn 10 percent back, up to $100, on qualifying purchases. The rewards will come in an e-gift card in November.

(Read more: Avoiding temptation: How to outsmart retailers)

Retailers hope the holiday spirit strikes early to help make up for disappointing sales earlier in the year and the trough retailers have begun to expect between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The online factor

Mike Moriarty, a partner in the retail practice of global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, said the Internet is one of the drivers of the holiday season's being extended.

E-commerce "spreads out the season a lot more, and I think that's one of the reasons you see the promotions coming earlier in the year as well," he said. "Retailers realize you can actually do holiday from August through Jan. 15."

The earlier promotions are also a function of planning, Moriarty said.

"Retailers are getting a lot smarter about their inventories," he said. "In 2008, 2009 and 2010, they ended up with way too much inventory. This year, they are protecting themselves by starting early, figuring out what the consumer wants, and doing layaway plans."

The eight-day Hanukkah period begins the night before Thanksgiving this year, something that hasn't happened since 1918. While the Jewish holiday is not traditionally as big a gift-giving event as Christmas, it is likely to pull buying earlier than usual for many, which could calm some anxieties for retailers.

(Read more: Christmas? Retailers gear up for holidays )

While some consumers may be frustrated by a holiday push that seems earlier every year, many experts view it as a reaction to consumer behavior—albeit behavior retailers likely created. Consumers have gotten savvier and learned how to play the promotion timetable. Many dive into those early-season door-busters, then wait to take advantage of stores' desperation—and the subsequent deeper discounts—as Christmas approaches.

"What we're finding is the important times of the year are getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and the unimportant times of the year are getting less and less significant," said Express CEO Michael Weiss at the Goldman Sachs Retailing Conference this week in New York.

The best strategy for retailers is respond to customers, Weiss said. When they expect big sales, for example, companies better make them more impressive than before in order to win.

So as stores fight for foot traffic, aiming to grab the first-mover advantage, the promotions inevitably get bigger, which is good news for early-bird shoppers checking off their holiday lists.

But Moriarty isn't buying it.

"Pulling the promotion season forward for the holiday isn't going to make any difference whatsoever," he said. "Consumers have a set amount of money they want to spend. They may get into the stores earlier, but by the end of the year, they will have spent whatever their budget is."

—By CNBC's Courtney Reagan. Follow her on Twitter @CourtReagan.

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