Back-to-school shopping: How and when to get the best deals

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The summer weather may still be in full force, but fall is definitely in the air, at least when you consider one of the year’s biggest retail events: Back-to-school (B2S) shopping, projected to garner $27.6 billion in consumer dollars, with the average household spending $510, up $9 from 2017, according to a Deloitte survey.

The summer has already seen two of major discount extravaganzas pass, as Sara Skirboll, resident shopping and trends expert at RetailMeNot, with Memorial Day and Amazon Prime Day. But deals are heating up as the days pays, with some of the biggest blowouts still available (and possibly reaching peak savings value come Labor Day weekend).

“Many sales are already underway, so shoppers can definitely start comparing prices (and shopping) now,” says Courtney Jesperspen, consumer savings expert at NerdWallet. “In general, the closer shoppers wait until the beginning of the school year, the more discounts they can expect to find. Of course, inventory can be more picked over by then.

We’ve compiled a list of expert tips on how to get the best savings — and navigate the chaos with as little stress as possible.

Budget, price compare and leave the little kids out of it

“Consumers should approach B2S shopping in much the same way that they approach Black Friday shopping,” says Jespersen. “The rules are simple: If you want to get a good deal, you need to make a budget, shop around and compare prices. Parents on a tight budget can spread out their spending so the entire cost of back-to-school doesn’t hit at once.”

Chelsea Hudson, online shopping and deal expert at TopCashback.com adds that consumers should further prep by taking inventory of what they already have, and leave the little kids at home.

“Unless you have a teenager and it is necessary to have them pick out what items they need, leave the kiddos at home to prevent overspending,” she says.

Heed the Sunday paper

Today’s consumer tends to be inundated with ads online as well as on their mobile devices; but for B2S shopping, you may want to consider an old standard in coupon clipping: the Sunday paper.

“Grab a Sunday paper for coupons on B2S items,” says Hudson. “The most popular way to save during [these] shopping sprees is looking for sales and deals (77 percent), according to TopCashback.com. Many brands such as Target, Walmart, and Dollar Store will present coupons in your local paper to help you save more.”

Shop around to get the biggest bang for your buck

You may find great sales at one store — but shop around before committing.

“Parents often make the mistake of going to one store to shop for all their B2S needs. Head to a variety of stores, including Walmart, Target, Staples and the Dollar Store to see what types of sales they offer. Staples has $0.50 and $1.00 deals on the same products you could also find at Walmart. Don’t skip the clearance section either; you can find end-of-summer deals on clothes that your kids can still wear through September and into October.”

You can save big now on these items

You should be taking advantage of current sales on these items:

Sneakers

“B2S deals on kids’ sneakers are great now,” says Fabregas. “Expect to find half-off deals at Academy, Dick’s, and mall stores through the end of August.”

Student tech gear

“Great deals on B2S student tech gear can be found now at the Apple store (free Beats headphones on iPad Pro/Mac purchases plus $200 off Macs via education pricing), and through the usual suspects: BestBuy, Amazon, and smaller tech outlets like B&H,” says Fabregas. “For smart tech buys, online price comparisons are the only way to ensure you’re getting the best deal. B2S tech sales and education prices often deliver genuine deals, but be sure to compare processing speeds, and capacity between bottom-dollar and slightly more expensive units. Sometimes, just $50 more will get you a faster processor or double the hard drive space, which can be the better value in the long run.”

“New products were released in June, so look to retailers like Best Buy and Apple for great savings on last year’s models,” adds Skirboll.

Binders and office supplies

“August is prime time for purchasing B2S supplies, including pens, pencils, binders, folders and the like,” says Jespersen. Skirboll adds that while all manner of school supplies are discounted in the run-up to the new school year, “adults in need of office supplies can also benefit from the savings this season. Head to Office Depot & OfficeMax for discounts both in-store and online.”

Pro-tip: Your local 99 cents store(s) can also be a jackpot of findings for these generic must-haves.

Hold off on these items

Keep in mind that right now, stores will try to lure you in to stocking up on all your B2S needs, but not offering the best savings across all categories. If you can, wait to buy these items later.

Backpacks, lunch kits and organizers

“If you can hold off on backpacks, lunch kits, and fancy organizer/binder purchases until the week after school starts, the remnants of B2S stock will be on clearance then; however, it will be pretty picked-over,”says Krista Fabregas, retail and shopping analyst, Fit Small Business. “If you find the must-have item for a good price during the run-up in August, buy it then, as it likely won’t hang around for clearance.” If you’re not picky though, it’s best to wait until stores are desperate to clear out remaining stock.

Fall clothing

“B2S fall and winter stock will be on sale in October when holiday stock starts to arrive — just when the air starts to get nippy,” notes Fabregas. “This holds true for apparel and department stores, too.”

“Try to curate a versatile wardrobe by giving them some layering options to take them into fall,” adds Skirboll. “Look to retailers like Macy’s, Sears and Old Navy for discounts on all types of clothing.”

Student tech gear that isn’t urgent

Yes, you can find awesome savings on tech right now, as noted, but if tablets and laptops can wait, you’ll find the best deals on new products in fall.

“If you’re not in a rush for a major tech buy, you can grab more tablet and laptop deals in late September or October,” says Fabrega. “This is when older tech gear hits clearance as new stock arrives for holiday shopping. You can also keep an eye out for the best deals on Amazon and other online sellers using price-checker apps like Honey, Keepa, and CamelCamelCamel. Or try ShopSavvy, which lets you scan in-store items and compare deals in nearby stores and through online sellers before you make your buy.”

Calculators

Hudson adds that you should also wait to buy calculators during Black Friday and Cyber Monday if you can hold off.

Consider refurbished tech

There’s no pressure to buy a brand new computer, when a refurbished one can be just as excellent, and, if you’re buying from a top electronics store like Apple, will look and work as good as new (I bought a refurbished Mac last year and it had that very distinct new-tech smell and had I not known it had been refurbished, I would not have been able to tell the difference).

“Look for certified used products from a reputable seller to ensure you get a good item for a good deal,” says Hudson. “Shopping manufacturer-refurbished goods can save you almost half the price.”

Shop during tax-free holidays, if applicable

“For those who live in states with tax-free [holidays], I recommend taking advantage of those shopping days,” says Hudson.

Here’s a comprehensive list of the tax-free holidays by state. Note that not all participating states are including B2S-related items, (while others did, but the dates have passed). If you’re in one of the following states, you still have time.

  • Connecticut: clothing and footwear – $100, from August 19-25
  • Maryland: clothing and footwear – $100, from August 12-18
  • Texas: clothing, backpacks and school supplies – $100, from August 10-12