'Twas 164 Days Before Christmas...

Santa may be off sunning himself on the beach, but inside many malls and retail stores it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. And why not, there are only 164 shopping days left until the big day.

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"Christmas in July" promotions are not a new retail concept, but stores and malls appear to be kicking it up a notch this year in order to spur sales in an otherwise sluggish time of the year.

"This is a very promotional summer," said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. "June retail numbers were a little soft and there is softness in July that is still continuing."

According to Johnson, retailers and mall operators are turning to "Christmas in July" events to provide an opportunity to offer sales that are "not simply a price promotion." Instead, these sales become more of a social event.

According to Johnson, a new twist on the trend is that mall operators are increasingly getting into the act, often offering special events such as concerts, or designating a charity to support during the occasion.

This Saturday, for example, the Short Pump Town Center, a mall in Richmond, Va., is sponsoring a "Christmas in July" eventwith concerts from local bands, raffles, and one-day-only sales. Visitors to the mall are being encouraged to help support the Central Virginia food bank with donations of money or food.

"The 'Golden Age' of the mall is over," Johnson said, explaining that many consumers only go to the mall for specific events. But with few shopping-centric holidays in the summer, events like the one at Short Pump can draw traffic into the mall at an otherwise dead time.

Some retailers have become known for their annual "Christmas in July" events. Liberty Media's QVC, for example, kicks off a 28-hour shopping event later this month. The home shopping networkhas been doing this annual promotion for nearly two decades.

And Hallmark typically gives fans of its keepsake Christmas ornnaments a sneak peek at its latest collection in mid-July.

But others appear to be trying to establish their own traditions. Toys 'R Usis bringing back its Christmas in July event, but it has kicked it up a few notches. Not only will the toy retailer offer advertised promotions and surprise "deals of the day" in its stores, but it will attempt to recreate the flavor of the Christmas holiday season by hosting a "Cyber Monday" sale on July 26 with exclusive Web-only deals.

Toys 'R Us also will be including a charitable element by encouraging shoppers to make donations to the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation. Toys 'R Us typically sponsors a toy drive for the group during the holiday season.

These promotions include offers such as a $20 gift card with the purchase of Nintendo'sWii Fit Plus with Balance Board, $40 off Power Wheels Lil' Quads and 30 percent off of all Moxie Girlz dolls, among others.

Toys 'R Us also will be promoting its Christmas Savers Club, which is a program that allows shoppers to set aside money on a special card that will entitle them to receive a cash bonus come holiday time. This program, which is modeled after traditional holiday savings clubs, is similar to one that will be brought back again this year by Sears and Kmart.

Burt Flickinger, managing director of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group, said arts and craft stores such as Michael's and Jo-Ann Fabrics are moving up sales of their year-end merchandise, hoping to attract customers who are interested in making their Christmas gifts and need time to complete these homemade projects.

For some stores, the mid-summer promotions are a good game plan, but for others, the sales are a sign of desperation, Flickinger said.

"For Toys 'R Us, it is just a smart strategy," he said. "They are going through a spectactular tunaround."

But other retailers such as Kmart are struggling, he said.

For the hard-hit retailers, the mid-summer sales may be more a matter of survival—a way to raise much-needed capital in a tight credit environment and to prepare for the busier fall and winter shopping seasons, Flickinger said.

Programs such as the Christmas savings programs also resonate with consumers, who remain cautious and leery of taking on more debt. For those shoppers, it may be a smart strategy to spread out their must-have holiday purchases over a longer period of time.

And then, for industry-watchers like Flickinger, who expect the economy to worsen ahead of the holiday season, it may be a smart strategy for retailers to ring up those holiday items now, while consumers are still spending.

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