Don't worry if you never got around to buying a summer ensemble in time to make a splash at July Fourth pool parties and barbecues.
Now the fun kind of summer shopping begins, those exhilarating trips to your favorite haunts where you can score a swimsuit, sundress and sandals — all on sale — just before embarking on a week at the beach.
"It's never too late," says Anu Narayanan, vice president of women's and non-apparel at Old Navy. "You can always find, even on sale, great pieces, and it's how you mix them together that makes everything look new."
This year, many stores are recognizing that shoppers like to purchase summer clothing closer to when the weather is warm enough for them to wear it, says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with The NPD Group.
That translates to a later, more gradual rollout of summer clothing as well as staggered and later-than-usual sales, he said. While the 40 to 50 percent off deals used to arrive in early July and grow to 75 percent by August, Cohen predicts it will be August when the half-off sales begin.
"It used to be June would be when sales began and July Fourth would be the big clearance," Cohen said. "Now, July Fourth is the beginning of the sales."
The weeks ahead in mid-July and August are prime time to look for deals on basics like tank tops and trendy dresses, printed pants and colorful blouses, he said, though it may be trickier to find what you want because the sales will not be storewide. Cohen recommends checking online for deals before shopping.
While you're making your way through the sale racks, style experts recommend keeping an eye out for clothing that remains in the fashion forecast for fall. Consider if a piece can be worn with boots instead of sandals. Can you swap shorts for dark pants?
"It's a great time to find things you're going to wear for the summer months and a great time to look for things that will effortlessly move into your fall wardrobe," said Ken Downing, senior vice president/fashion director for Neiman Marcus. "I'm all about a great trend that has staying power."
Calling leather now a "365-day-a-year proposal in fashion," his top pick is warm-weather leather, especially by way of a biker jacket.
"Scoop up every biker jacket you can find on sale after July Fourth because rocker chic is the major message as we go into the fall season," he said. "You can make it super girlie, you can make it tomboy. That biker jacket will take you everywhere."
For color, think orange, a popular spring and summer hue that will work well in autumn with violets, reds and cranberries, Downing said. An orange handbag, he said, "pops everything in your wardrobe."
Distressed denim and peep-toe booties also make his "buy" list, and anything that follows the black-and-white trend.
Old Navy is influenced by the buy-now, wear-now trend, with stores receiving new summer clothing into early July, Narayanan says, adding that stores will have summer items like denim cutoff shorts, peasant tops and bathing suits this month.
"All of these are new stories, new ideas that the customer hasn't seen earlier in the season, which gives you a reason to want to shop," she said in a late June interview. "Summer has just started in most of the country, and we've still got two more months to go."
Narayanan suggests grabbing a pair of printed shorts on sale for a summer update along with a tunic or caftan to polish your poolside look. Consider maxi dresses and skirts that can move into fall with flat boots, she said, and if you're a fan of denim-on-denim dressing, look for denim tops on sale.
"Any denim jacket or vest, that's a key staple," she said. "It's become the new cardigan."
While a hot designer boot or a blouse in a certain print may sell out before markdowns, Louise Roe, host of NBC's "Fashion Star," suggests shopping by category, like dresses, rather than searching for one special piece.
"With sales, remember, it's hit or miss," Roe said. "Try not to have your heart set on a specific item because chances are, you might miss out or it might not be as discounted as it should be. It's better to enjoy and be potluck."
Bright, printed tops in acid yellow, coral and fuchsia are good bets to wear again in autumn, Roe said. "Usually fall is all about dark colors, but this season we saw pops of bright colors," she said.
Classics like a blazer, a crisp white shirt or a leather pencil skirt are worth spending more on during a sale, along with luxury textures, she said.
"Lace and leather have been huge for summer, and those fabrics are associated with winter usually," Roe said. "You'll be one step ahead of the game if you can snap them up in the sales."
Don't be afraid to ask for further discounts, she said, and beware of old merchandise that gets brought back out for a sale.
Cohen advised that if you find something you love, buy it and seek a price adjustment if possible during a sale. "If you wait for prices to go down later," he said, "the item is going to be gone."