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It's July, and retailers want you to think 'back to school'

Customers shop for back to school supplies at a Target store.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Customers shop for back to school supplies at a Target store.

The ink's barely dried on diplomas. Kids are being packed off to camp. And the grill is getting fired up on the back porch.

Amid the joys of summer, is it really time to think about heading back to school? Yes. At least that's the message being sent by some of the nation's biggest retailers, which already have back-to-school promotions in full swing.

Chains started hyping everything from folders to pencils as early as late June. Some of the discounts seem modest, like the 10% off backpacks at Target, while others run pretty deep, like 60% off select school uniforms at J.C. Penney. The midsummer push is partly aimed at early start dates of some school districts that resume classes long before Labor Day.

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But there's also a bottom-line urgency. Parents plan to spend an average of $501 per student to get their kids ready for a return to the classroom, according to a survey by consultancy Deloitte. That adds up to a projected total of $27 billion. That's a pittance compared to U.S. retail sales that were running at nearly $5.4 trillion as of 2015, but every buck counts right now for retailers.

Back-to-school spending is expected to reach its second-highest level on record, according to the National Retail Federation's annual survey conducted by Prosper Insight and Analytics. Total spending for school and back-to-college combined is projected to reach $83.6 billion, a more than 10% increase from last year.

To try to reel in those dollars, the industry's big names are already out in force:

Staples.The office-supply chain launched its Back to School Center on June 25. It has deals like 28% off pencils and 66% off school glue. To plan the kickoff, the retailer looked at shopping patterns and sought "feedback from parents and schools … to determine the official first day of the season,'' says Staples spokeswoman Meghan McCarrick.

Target.The mass merchandiser's back-to-school sales kicked off Sunday, along with ads that began showing up regionally before they break nationally on July 23.

Walmart. The world's biggest retailer began displaying back-to-school merchandise in stores the first week of July. Its school-based TV ads launched on Monday.

Walmart says it is increasing the number of back-to-school items that can be purchased online and picked up at one of its stores. For the first time, it will have back-to-school helpers who can assist shoppers on site.

And it's offering discounts online, such as big discounts on Bic highlighter pen packs and more than $60 off a Texas Instruments handheld graphing calculator.

"We've been seeing trends during the back-to-school season similar to what we're seeing throughout the year,'' says Walmart spokeswoman Erin Hulliberger. "Customers are shopping when and how they want.''

Retailers have been moving promotions earlier and earlier. Year-end holiday sales that were traditionally kicked off by Black Friday sales on the day after Thanksgiving have now been pushed back to early as October. Halloween décor starts popping up in September.

The selling environment "is tough and retailers are looking to key selling seasons for some relief,'' says Neil Saunders, managing director and retail analyst at consultancy GlobalData, who said back-to-school merchandise has been going on sale before the Fourth of July vs. later in the month for the past few years.

The back-to-school "category is also very competitive, so retailers are trying to get in early and secure market share. Online hasn't helped as it can sell back to school all year round, and stores have to compete with this,'' he says.