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It’s 100 degrees in the shade, and Fourth of July fireworks haven’t even exploded. So why are darker shades of clothing and longer pants appearing in the mall?

Is it me, or are back-to-school sales pitches are starting sooner than usual?

The National Retail Federation estimated that nearly $70 billion was spent on back-to-school and college merchandise last year. That puts the July and August period ahead of all other holidays except Christmas, at $471.5 billion.

Still, the early arrival of fall merchandise irritates some shoppers (like me.)

“I came to buy a bathing suit cover-up for my vacation,” admits Cathy Earl of DeLand, Florida. Strolling through Macy’s one recent morning, Earl was surprised to see a lot of navy blue and brown items lining the aisles. “Summer has barely started and I don’t want to think about fall.”

The early push for back-to-school reflects the challenges facing many retailers in the current economy. It also gives parents more time to window shop before actually making a purchase.

Melissa Chrystal of Portage, Michigan, used to let son Will “scope out the stores’ before she accompanied him with her checkbook. And she has some advice for other parents embarking on the annual back-to-school shopping spree.

“Bide your time,” says Chrystal, the mother of three. “When school starts, kids are still wearing shorts because it’s warm outside. Sometimes stores overstock in anticipation of hordes of shoppers and the best bargains are from sales after school has started.”

Maybe retailers can wait until August to display their fall apparel, too.