Happy Halloween! Now let's talk holiday shopping

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By Allison Linn

Even as most kids are still sorting through their trick or treat bags, major retailers are already turning their attention toward another favorite time of year for kids: The winter holidays.

The holiday shopping season – long crucial to most retailers’ financial success or failure – is starting earlier and earlier, especially online.

As of Halloween morning, retailers such as Amazon.com and Toyrus.com are already featuring holiday toys lists prominently on their home pages. Wal-Mart’s website was touting ways to get your home ready for the holidays alongside a last-minute Halloween costume promotion.

In all, the National Retail Federation said more than six in 10 online retailers were starting holiday promotions before Halloween.

Some may grouse about seeing Christmas trees in October, but a significant minority of shoppers do start  thinking early about holiday shopping. Retail analysts at NPD Group expect that more than two in 10 shoppers will start their holiday shopping by Thanksgiving, a slight increase from last year.

Nearly four in 10 plan to do holiday shopping online, about the same as last year, according to NPD.

Still, the presidential election – and more recently, Superstorm Sandy – are probably a bigger distraction to people right now. C. Britt Beemer, a retail analyst with America's Research Group, said his recent polling has found that to be the case.

"Over half the country said they had to get through this presidential election before they could even think about Christmas," he said.

The early promotions - along with other discounts, free shipping deals and limited-time offers - are among the ways online-only retailers are trying to get an edge over traditional retailers' promotions such as Black Friday.

For retailers with both an online and a physical presence, experts say it's a way to entice shoppers to buy from them whether they are at the mall, using their smart phone or on their laptop. 

"They’re really starting to realize that it’s a total picture. You can’t just pay attention to online or brick and mortar," said Vicki Cantrell, executive director of shop.org, the digital division of the National Retail Federation.

There are good deals to be had online, especially as we get closer to the holidays. But Beemer said consumers can still expect to get a good deal the old-fashioned way: By getting up really, really early on Black Friday and heading to a traditional store.

"There’s nothing better than those early bird specials," he said.

But Black Friday may not be such a good deal for those who aren't willing to wake up at the crack of dawn, and cost-conscious consumers have gotten more savvy about using online tools to compare prices and hold out for the best deal.

Cantrell said consumers are increasingly thinking of the period from Thanksgiving day to the Monday after Thanksgiving as an elongated shopping period, where they may shop online or in person, depending on what is cheapest and most convenient.

Overall, experts are predicting a decent holiday season as consumers grow a little less nervous about the economy, The National Retail Federation is estimating that sales will increase 4.1 percent, to $586.1 billion.