For retailers, back-to-school shopping is becoming Christmas in July

Ted Williams wasn't at the pool last week. Nor was he on the basketball court, polishing off an ice cream cone, sleeping in till noon or catching a movie.

One gloriously sunny midsummer day found him at Target, clutching a dictionary and gazing listlessly at three-ring binders. Though it felt as if vacation had barely begun, the Towson teenager was already back-to-school shopping with his mother and younger brother. He could almost hear the institutional bell cutting into his time off.

The shopping trip, he declared, was "a killjoy."

"School," said Ted, who will be a freshman at Calvert Hall College High School, "is the last thing you want to think about."

But for retailers, it's the only thing worth talking about.

To give customers every opportunity to get out their wallets, particularly in this frail economy, stores have been inching the start of back-to-school season deeper and deeper into traditional summer. This year, it practically tripped over the heels of Independence Day.

While some folks jump at the chance to find school bargains and get the best selection, others say they resent the idea of retailers forcing the essence of autumn into July — summer's deepest, purest part.

"Parents are eager to get their kids out of the pool and into stores to get the trip out of the way," says National Retail Federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis. "But for the kids, it's 'I can't believe you're doing this to me.' "

After Christmas, back-to-school is the retail world's biggest spending event.

Stores rely on school-supply sales to stay in the black. This year, families with schoolkids are expected to spend nearly $70 billion in notebooks, protractors and saddle shoes.

The National Retail Federation figures about 22 percent of shoppers will buy their school supplies a full two months before the first bell rings. Major national stores already showcasing school things this year include Target, Macy's, OfficeMax and Staples.

"It's a lot like when you start seeing Christmas promotions when the Halloween stuff is still out," Grannis says. "Back-to-school is that big."

At the Target store in Timonium last week, bathing suits still hung near the entrance and pool toys were plentiful. Yet the displays of spiral notebooks, pencil cases and pristine pink erasers stretched over more than five aisles of prime real estate.

But customers seemed ready for it, many arriving with school lists in hand. Ted Williams' mother, Stacey, predicted that if she waited until classes were ready to resume, the good stuff would be long gone.

"If you don't get it now, you'll be running around like a chicken with your head cut off in August looking for it," she said as she showed off a cart filled with dictionaries, fabric book covers, a binder and filler paper. Before hitting Target, she took her boys shopping for clothes, where Ted, still plenty happy to be in shorts, loaded up on buttoned-down apparel that he thought made him look like "an office worker."

One look at all of the corduroy at Kohl's almost made Judi DiGioia break out in hives.

"It just took the air out of my lungs," said the Timonium mother of a 7-year-old. "I'm just not ready."

She had gone to the store looking for a bathing suit for her boy. And then all she saw was school stuff. Fall stuff. Gear for the responsible season.

For DiGioia, summer means blissful time off. Sure, she's probably still working, but it feels easier somehow. More relaxed. If little Dominic wants to stay up until 10 a.m., it's OK. If she doesn't want to cook a couple nights a week, it's OK. Laundry can wait.

"It just doesn't seem to matter," she said. "But once you hit the back-to-school, everything counts again."

She wants retailers to know she'd like her summer back.

"Who," she says, "is looking out for my psyche?"

Shayna Blinkoff, who's heading into the fifth grade at Rodgers Forge Elementary School, was shopping for school supplies with her mother last week when she acknowledged that she was looking forward to one thing about school — serving as the corresponding secretary for her class, an elected position.

Other than that, Shayna had zip.

"What about seeing your friends?" asked her mom, Belinda. "I can see them now," Shayna said.

Lia White might be the only 12-year-old tickled to be thinking school thoughts in July. Last week it seemed like she'd have been happy to head to the eighth grade at Baltimore's Friendship Academy of Engineering and Technology tomorrow — if she could do it with a new purple-and-black notebook.

"My friends think I'm weird," she happily conceded as she pointed out the colorful backpack at Target she was also hoping for, and a Hello Kitty scratch-and-sniff folder that smelled of lemons.

Her little brother, Zion Eames, who is going into first grade at Baltimore's Tunbridge Public Charter School, had already settled on a backpack and folders featuring Super Mario Bros. videogame characters. School made him smile, too — but it's not as if he had much experience with the grind.

"It's not boring to go shopping for school supplies," Lia said. "I want to come to school with some flavor, if you know what I mean."