Retailers are ratcheting up deals right now

And they're off!

After several weeks of reining in the deep promotions that have plagued the retail industry, department stores including J.C. Penney, Macy's and Nordstrom all accelerated their discounts at the end of March in preparation for the early Easter holiday.

A sale sign outside a clothing store in New York City
Getty Images
A sale sign outside a clothing store in New York City

According to store checks by Deutsche Bank analyst Paul Trussell, Penney's deals included a 14-day Easter sale and a cash reward promotion. That compares to three separate three-day Easter sales in April last year, he said.

At Macy's, the department store introduced several supplementary promotions, while continuing with its VIP and spring break sales.

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And at Nordstrom, the message for its men's shop was simple: "More. Markdowns."

"Our channel checks show that [department] stores cleared inventory after a slow start to [the first quarter] and are successfully driving traffic with discounting, albeit with help from the earlier Easter," Trussell wrote in a note to investors.

Discounts at Wal-Mart and Target were relatively flat year over year, Trussell said. And Janney Capital Markets analyst Adrienne Yih said the promotional cadence remained flat year-over-year for her coverage universe, which includes apparel retailers including Chico's and Express.

Analysts had been forecasting that promotional activity would pick up as Easter drew near, despite the fact that inventory levels are cleaner than they were a year ago. That's because the holiday falls two weeks earlier this year, which will therefore pull sales from April into March.

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Because of this calendar shift, analysts have cautioned that investors shouldn't make too much of March's same-store sales data, to be released April 9. Instead, they should look at March and April combined. The National Retail Federation predicts shoppers will spend about $16.4 billion on Easter-related products, which can include new apparel.

Despite this bump, Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics, is forecasting same-store sales will increase a "very modest" 1.2 percent for March, the result of lower gasoline prices denting Costco's sales and product struggles at the Gap brand.

"Retailers should turn in sequentially better sales in March following relatively sluggish sales in the first two months of this year," he wrote in a note on Tuesday.