It's 60 degrees outside, the leaves haven't begun to change color and most of us haven't had a chance to put away summer clothes, but that hasn't stopped retailers from kicking the holiday shopping season into gear. Last year, retailers started to get into the Christmas spirit in October. This year the deluge began even earlier. By mid-September, for example, specialty apparel seller Urban Outfitters had a full array of synthetic Christmas trees, ornaments and stocking stuffers on display at its stores.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 2, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced that it would put the 10 most popular toys sold at its stores on sale for $10 apiece and open Christmas venues selling tree ornaments and other holiday paraphernalia at discount prices. Even luxury retailers joined the fray. On Oct. 7, Neiman Marcus released its annual Christmas Book of gifts and at least one Bloomingdale's, in White Plains, N.Y., is already previewing its Christmas merchandise, according to Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, LLC, a New Canaan, Conn.-based research firm.

But is expanding the season working? Last year, an early start helped sales only marginally, according to analysts. From October through January 2007, same-store sales growth at U.S. chain stores averaged 1.58 percent, according to ICSC figures, compared to growth of approximately 3.13 percent during the same period in 2006. So the longer season didn't end up boosting sales. Instead, what seems to be driving the trend is that retailers feel like they might not have much of a choice. With consumers stretched, competition for discretionary spending is at a fever pitch and retailers are looking for any edge they can get, especially in light of the ongoing financial crisis and fears of a prolonged recession, says John Bemis, executive vice president and director of leasing with Jones Lang LaSalle Retail, an Atlanta-based third-party property manager.

In the spring of 2007, before the full extent of the economic storm had become clear, many chains ordered too much merchandise for last year's holiday season. That forced retailers to start sales early to unload as many items as possible. This year, chains have been more conservative with sales estimates, but fear the economy will leave consumers with little to spend during the holiday season. And once a major chain like Wal-Mart starts holiday discounts, everybody else is forced to follow suit, according to Carl Steidtmann, chief economist and director of consumer business research with Deloitte. Steidtmann expects same-store sales growth of 2.5 percent to 3.0 percent for the 2008 holiday season. Other analysts have said they expect same-store sales could actually decrease this year. The most recent sales figures show slowing gains. In September, same-store sales for U.S. stores registered growth of 1.0 percent, down from 1.7 percent last year. Apparel stores were down 7.6 percent, department stores 9.8 percent, luxury stores 10.9 percent. Wal-Mart, however, posted a gain of 2.8 percent. That, in fact, helped prop up the entire industry's figure.

What's more, on Oct. 7, MasterCard Spending Pulse, an index that measures national retail sales based on sales activity in the MasterCard payments network, reported a decline of 7.7 percent compared to September of last year, indicating the biggest drop in the use of credit by consumers since the index was launched in 2003.

“Retailers are looking to entice shoppers early because there is fear that if the economic slowdown continues or increases pace between now and the beginning of December, people will pull the reins in tighter than they already have,” says Bemis.

Unlike many of its tenants, however, Jones Lang LaSalle won't be starting holiday events at its centers early to prevent the risk of shopper fatigue. “If Santa shows up and that puts a dent in your kid's [allowance for] Halloween candy, that signals the season is starting too early,” Bemis says.

Local Pride

Developers Diversified Realty launched an annual children's literacy initiative called Project Imagination. The company invited children between the ages of 5 and 14 to share artwork and tell stories about their communities. The program, which included book drives and reading programs, kicked off in September to coincide with National Literacy Month. It culminated with an awards ceremony at participating malls. Children ages 10 to 14 were asked to submit stories addressing “How your city or state shapes America.” Using the same theme, those ages 5 to 9 were invited to enter artwork, including drawings, paintings and/or collages.

In the Loop

The Shopping Center Group announced it will begin marketing its 75-million-square-foot portfolio of managed shopping center through LoopNet's online suite of technology and marketing services. The firm will use LoopNet's REApplications tools to link its 23 retail real estate brokerage offices in 9 states. The technology platform will enable the Shopping Center Group to coordinate its various services, including project management, property and listing management, customer relationship management and commission tracking. The company also hopes to increase efficiencies and use LoopNet to broaden its exposure.

Simon Says “Green”

Simon Property Groups' Mall at Rockingham Park, in Salem, N.H., is lighting the way to environmental sustainability. The developer will reduce carbon emissions at the largest shopping mall in the state by retrofitting 4,400 light fixtures. The move will reduce the mall's energy load by kilowatt hours and generate savings of $100,000 annually. The propertywide installation of energy-efficient lighting will reduce carbon emissions by 885,000 pounds, the equivalent of taking 77 cars off the road every year or planting 110 acres of trees. Through its energy-efficient practices since 2003 at its centers across the U.S., Simon has reduced its carbon emissions by 93,000 metric tons. This year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named Simon Property one of its 2008 Energy Star Partners and cited the firm's outstanding record in energy management.

InWindow Shopping

Developers Diversified Realty, General Growth Properties and Westfield Group are the first developers to turn to InWindow Outdoor to transform vacant mall storefronts into advertising displays. Last month, the firms announced partnerships with the New York City-based outdoor advertising company to roll out a mall-based window advertising concept called Mallways. The medium, initially used in vacant storefronts on city streets, called Storescapes, will be adapted for windows of empty stores and wall space at more than 200 of the developers' malls. Numerous brands have used the outdoor storefront advertising concept. InWindow will offer Mallways to advertisers on a mall-by-mall basis. When an advertiser makes a buy, it will typically receive five ads within a specific mall.