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."
Even if you prefer to do your shopping in person, "going online to find the savings to shop offline is still a smart thing to do," Wilson says. Use retailers' websites and bargain sites to comparison-shop and scout out discounts that you can use to help maximize your time and budget at retail stores.
4. Look for coupons. Be on the lookout for student-focused deals that only pop up during the back-to-school season, Wilson says. Many technology retailers – including Best Buy and Apple – offer back-to-school deals on computers that only work with a ".edu" student email address, Wilson says.
Otherwise, take the time to browse through weekly circulars and search online coupon sites, Wilson adds. "The main thing that I wish that people would realize is how prevalent coupons and offers are for really every store," Wilson says. "On any given day, I would say 9 out of 10 stores have some kind of discount that you can either print out and take to the store or that you can use online."
All of those discounts can add up, Wilson says. "In the case of retail shopping this isn't 'get 25 cents off a can of green beans' and that kind of thing, it's 'get $10 off at Macy's' or '20 percent off at Bed Bath & Beyond,' and on and on and on," he says. "If you're cutting 20 percent off or 20 bucks off each of a half-dozen big purchases you're making, you're going to end up in pretty good shape."
5. Look for preowned goods. When shopping for college students, don't be afraid to look for second-hand or gently used items, Wilson says. Everything from textbooks to laptops to furniture can be bought second-hand or rented, often at a lower cost than might be found at the campus bookstore.
"We're certainly seeing more preowned options in stores and marketplaces, and there's increasingly coupons and offers to be had there as well," Wilson says. "Believe it or not, there's actually coupons for a lot of these sites. On Chegg[.com], Bookrenter.com and places like that, even though they're already 80 percent off the new price, there's also often coupon codes on top of that, which most people aren't aware of."
When parents are shelling out hundreds of dollars for back-to-school goods, those discounts come in handy.