Parents, prepare to fork over more cash for school supplies this year than last. And if you’re set on shopping at certain stores, you may pay even more.
According to data from the National Retail Federation, the average family with children in kindergarten through high school will spend $669.28 on back-to-school shopping, including classroom supplies, electronics and clothes this year, up roughly 5 percent from last year; the largest spending increases will be seen for electronics like laptops (up 7 percent) and school supplies (up 12 percent).
The retail federation says the increase in part is driven by broader economic improvements, which make consumers feel comfortable spending more. Another factor: Schools are increasingly asking parents to contribute to classroom supplies by purchasing sanitary products like hand wipes and tissues, which means that the average school-supplies shopping list now includes 18 items, up from 14 a year prior.
One of the best ways to save money is to shop the “door-buster” style back-to-school deals offered at a range of stores, ranging from big-box retailers to drugstores and electronics stores, says Sara Steigerwald, founder of Sisters Shopping On A Shoestring and a deal hunter for Savings.com. Different stores are likely to offer super low prices on different supplies to get parents in the door, notes Stephanie Nelson, the founder of CouponMom.com.
Shoppers Flee Physical Stores
Retail traffic has continued an unrelenting slide in the U.S., dropping even as the weather improves. As a result, the industry is slashing store growth from malls to drugstores.
“The trick to back-to-school savings is to be able to shop over a couple of weeks so you can take advantage of all the best deals,” says Steigerwald. You can watch for the lowest prices by checking out your newspaper circulars or using a browser-add in like PriceBlink—which pops up when you’re shopping online and tells you if an item is priced less elsewhere. Apps like Coupons.com, CouponSherpa and RetailMeNot can help you combine these offers with coupons.
But, as Nelson points out, many parents don’t want to have to go through all that trouble. Instead, they want to shop at one or two stores—or simply go online — and then wash their hands of the whole business. If you fall into that group, here’s where you should — and shouldn’t — go shopping.
Where you should shop:
Nelson says Wal-Mart is often the way to go for one-stop shopping: Even when it doesn’t have those lowest prices listed on its items (and Matthew Ong, a senior retail analyst with NerdWallet.com, says that, on average, it does), Wal-Mart will price-match so you can get the lowest price anyway, says Nelson. You can earn the price match by finding competitors’ ads, shopping at Wal-Mart and presenting the ads at the register.
Another option, if the research is too much of a hassle: Buy the items at Wal-Mart at the retail price and then go onto Walmart.com and use their SavingsCatcher tool. Plug in your receipt number, and the tool searches other stores’ advertised prices; if they are lower, Wal-Mart will send you a gift card for the difference. Ong adds that Target also offers price-matching and has very low prices.
Some of the best deals are to be found at dollar stores, says Erin Konrad, a spokesperson for CouponPal.com. She recommends getting supplies like packs of pens and pencils at a spot like Dollar General or Dollar Days–and notes that sometimes these are even cheaper than at big-box stores like Wal-Mart. One recent example of a good deal: An online search for a box of 12 Crayola colored pencils yielded a price of $1.50 at Dollar General, while at Office Depot the price was listed at $2.89. You can also often find coupons for these stores to add onto the savings.
Jon Lal, CEO and founder of BeFrugal.com, says that parents who want to do all their shopping online and have an Amazon Prime membership (which gives you free two-day shipping) should consider doing their back-to-school shopping at the online giant. A survey from earlier this year by Savings.com found that Amazon tends to have better prices than most retailers for items under $10.
Many back-to-school laptop buyers are first-time buyers who need in-store help. Ong notes that while you can find sometimes better deals on electronics online, Best Buy tends to have low prices and will price-match other local retailers and online sites like Amazon. Lal of BeFrugal.com adds that laptops tend to go on sale in mid-August, so look for the best deals then.
In general, retail prices on back-to-school items at office supply stores tend to be slightly higher than at big-box stores, experts say. But we added Staples to the shop-here list because of its generous price match policy on back-to-school items. The retailer is offering a 110 percent price match guarantee — which means they will match the price of the item at any competitor, including Amazon, and refund a 10 percent difference — if you find the item for a lower price within 14 days of your purchase at Staples.
However, note the caveats: This is only for identical, in-stock items (so if Walmart’s store brand of pen, for example, is cheaper than the Staples store brand, you’re out of luck), and it doesn’t include special sale events like clearance items. Still, because the 110 percent price match is generous, it may be worth parents’ time to shop Staples.
Department stores tend to be pricey options for back-to-school attire. But Konrad says she likes Kohl’s because the stores offer tons of coupons (sign up for their mailing list here) and often let shoppers use multiple coupons on the same purchase. Other good options for clothing and shoes include Old Navy and Payless, says Nelson.
Where not to shop:
Office Supply Stores
Ong says that big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target are often cheaper than office supply stores for back-to-school supplies. An online search for a 4-ounce bottle of Elmer’s Washable School Glue, for example, yielded a price of $1 on Staples.com and $1.59 on OfficeDepot.com, while it was just 50 cents at Walmart.com and Target.com. A search for Fiskars five-inch blunt-tip scissors for kids found a price of $2.99 at Staples and $2.49 at Office Depot, while a pair was $1.47 at Wal-Mart and $1.49 at Target.
Big-box retailers are generally cheaper than office supply stores for back-to-school supplies.
To be sure, there are some caveats to this: For one, office supply stores often have door-buster deals that can make some back-to-school items cheaper than at big-box stores. For some products, the quality of store brands at office-supply stores is higher than at big-box retailers. (Spokespersons for Staples and Office Depot point out that their chains offer price-matching, and Office Depot also cites its 90-day return policy as an advantage for shoppers.)
Nelson says that for back-to-school clothes and shoes, most parents are better off at a big-box store like Wal-Mart or Target or a discount retailer like Old Navy or Payless than they are at middle- and upper-tier department stores. That’s because kids grow out of clothes quickly — and tend to want trendy items often — so the higher quality you might find at a department store likely won’t be worth the higher price.
Nelson also advises parents not to buy fall items when they hit the department stores (in July and August). Instead, she recommends waiting a month or two; by then, fall items are more likely to go on sale, and the kids will have already been to school so they’ll have a better idea of what they really want. Find coupons before any shopping trip at the website of the mall or outlet mall or store you’re going to.
Drugstores and Grocery Stores
These days, drugstores and grocery stores sell far more than their names imply—and this includes school supplies. But outside of their door-buster deals, these spots are often not the best places to shop, says Ong. “They’re betting on you coming in for one thing like drugs and then leaving with other things,” he says. However, Konrad notes that if you’re a member of a store’s rewards program, buying some back-to-school items at these stores might be worth it.
Catey Hill covers personal finance and travel for MarketWatch in New York. Follow her on Twitter @CateyHill. This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com and is reprinted by permission from Marketwatch.com, ©2014 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.