Along with vacations and backyard barbecues, summer also means back-to-school shopping season. And retailers aren't wasting any time getting started.
July marks the beginning of the second-biggest shopping season of the year, as parents prepare to shell out big to get their kids equipped for the coming school year. Parents with school-age children expect to spend an average of almost $635 on back-to-school shopping this year, while parents of college-aged students will spend around $835, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.
With the cost of school supplies and technology creeping up and the economy still on shaky ground, more and more families are looking to cut costs when it comes to restocking for school and college. Here are five tips to help you find the best deals of the back-to-school season:
1. Get organized. "As with any shopping, a plan helps," says Jon Lal, founder of BeFrugal.com, an online couponing site. "First, make a shopping list. With that list, you can estimate what things will cost you, and then you have a budget."
[See: 10 Back-to-School Deals.]
Take time to sit down with your back-to-school shopping list and set up a plan of attack. Having a pre-set spending limit will help make comparison-shopping easier, allowing you to decide where to shop and what trade-offs you can afford to make, Lal says. "In doing this, you might look for items that you already have. So, for example, do you really need to get your child a new laptop? Maybe there's another one in the house they can repurpose," he says. "Planning overall will help you think of what items you really need."
2. Shop early, shop late. Avoid shopping at major back-to-school retailers during the peak of the shopping season, which falls around mid- to late August, says Brad Wilson, founder of coupon site BradsDeals.com. To get the best deals, don't shop "when the retailers expect everyone else to be shopping," Wilson says. "The retailers know that people are in the market and they're not as patient at that point, and the pricing reflects that."
Instead, try searching for deals and discounts online and in stores before or after the August rush. "In July, [retailers are] a little less certain, they have a lot of inventory, they haven't started to sell through it, they want to get off to a good start, they're a little more competitive," Wilson says. "At the same time in September, it's later in the season and they're going to be cutting prices on the things that they have too much of, and you're going to see a lot of great deals from that angle."
Use your planned-out budget to prioritize when and how you shop, Lal suggests. "If you're very particular about getting a certain item, you're better off shopping early because you run the risk of not being able to locate it or find the item," Lal says. "And the other stuff, you can shop late – if it's binders or pencils or that sort of stuff that perhaps you're happy with any generic kind. You can buy that at any time, perhaps when you see a great price and then perhaps at the end of the season, when retailers are trying to close out some of these supplies."
3. Go online. Avoid the hassle, time crunch and crowds of brick-and-mortar stores – and save money – by beginning your search for back-to-school deals online.
"We see, by far, the majority of the best deals being online," Wilson says. "That's for a lot of reasons, everything from the sales-tax situation still being very friendly online, to the ubiquity of online coupon codes to the fact that a lot of the pricing just starts better at some of the e-commerce stores."
Don't just limit your online search to big-ticket items, Wilson says. "We've seen great deals on everything from Sharpie highlighters to textbooks to sheets to moving boxes … A lot of things that you wouldn't ever think about getting online are online and at better prices, including a lot of the boring, staple-type stuff that you might not really think about."