Back-to-school spending tests your wallet and your patience

September 6, 2011

A child watches from a school bus in New York January 6, 2011. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton Remember when you could outfit a kid with roughly $20 in school supplies? Now there’s a lesson in ancient history, folks.

In present-day Chicago, the list of required items for two public school students can easily top $200. And the author of this article, a father of two, has a fresh receipt to prove it: The total at Office Depot last week to outfit a fourth-grade boy and a second-grade girl came to $196.13 before cashing in a $20 coupon.

All that spending on pencils, paper, wipes and markers, by the way, doesn’t include what many moms, dads and kids also consider fall necessities—items from new school clothes to smartphones for older kids. Parents are frustrated with school district supply lists that grow even as their income shrinks or stagnates. It’s no longer just a matter of pencils and notebooks, but tissues, hand sanitizer, wipes, paper towels, academic planners and much, much more. A student’s back-to-school arsenal can also include new footwear, clothing and computer equipment. And on the tech side, more kids demand smartphones (even if they’re not getting them) and e-readers.

What’s a parent to do, then? Experts say you can fight the back-to-school shopping blues in many ways, and offer powerful tips for doing so:

1. Comparison shopping apps. A smartphone app like RedLaser scans barcodes to find the lowest price on any item. “It uses product results from Google, eBay, Half.com and others and it’s free,” says Farnoosh Torabi, a personal finance expert and author of “Psych Yourself Rich.”

2. Rewards programs. We all dread junk email but getting on the mailing lists of retailers you frequent can yield sales alerts and money-saving coupons. Joining Office Depot’s Worklife Rewards allowed access to that $20 coupon mentioned earlier.

3. Online sales. About 30 percent of families plan to comparison shop online, says Arianna Georgi, vice president of marketing at Flank Digital LLC, the parent company of CheapSally.com. “Online coupon sites are only adding to this push, since many offer large discounts on items such as clothes, books, backpacks and electronics.”

4. Use student and teacher IDs. Especially with big-ticket items from brands such as Apple, a student or teacher ID can get you discounts worth hundreds of dollars. Apple is offering $100 in free apps if you buy a Mac before Sept. 20, in addition to education pricing.

5. Hold back. Just as holiday shoppers get the biggest bargains after Christmas, back-to-school shoppers can win by waiting. “Buy all the back-to-school products with some delay — a couple of weeks — as prices fall just after back-to-school as the rush is over,” says Martin Lindstrom, chairman and founder of Buyology, Inc. and author of “Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy”.

At least those strategies beat parsing the countless spending studies that fearlessly forecast and interpret the current shopping season. The divergent findings might give you whiplash akin to a getting rear-ended by a shopping cart in the glue-stick aisle at Target.

The Marketing to Moms Coalition reports that “back to school spending is down for the second year in a row for both moms of 7-12 and 13-17 year olds,” while MasterCard MarketPlace finds that “30 percent of respondents who identified themselves as back-to-school shoppers plan to spend more on back-to-school purchases.

Somewhere in between, CheapSally.com says “families will spend $603.63 on apparel, school supplies and electronics for the new school year. The average spending drop from 2010 to 2011 was not huge; spending in 2010 was $606.40, but it is very significant.”

Even those interpreting consumer data don’t exactly trust the numbers. “When we asked people whether they were going to spend more, less or about the same, 44 percent say more,” says Tom Bernthal, founder and CEO of Kelton Research, a marketing firm that works with Fortune 500 clients.”But the truth is, that’s probably not true. So irrationality is taking over their rational thought; they feel like they’re spending more, even though in reality they may not be spending more.” When Bernthal says “irrationality,” he touches on a jittery nerve running through the back-to-school forecasts: Moms and dads remain cautious, even skittish, about spending in an uncertain economy.

“There is a consistent trend of consumers looking to spend smartly through coupons, sales, and online shopping destinations,” says Kim Slate, senior business leader at MasterCard MarketPlace. Among those consumers “concerned about the economy,” 69 percent plan to look for more discounts, coupons and deals; 46 percent plan to do more comparison shopping; and 44 percent plan to shop only in stores that offer sales, MasterCard’s survey show. Still, even parents have their temper-tantrum moments.

Kelton Research’s survey of 535 parents shows that 18 percent consider school supply costs “more frustrating right now than the price of gasoline.” That figure jumps to 26 percent in the Northeast.

“This stuff is so worrisome, so scary for people,” Bernthal says. “When it comes to gas prices, housing and utilities, you make cuts and it’s painful. But with back-to-school spending, there’s an added layer of guilt: Cut back and you’re not doing for your kids what you should. You’re a ‘bad parent.’”

Retailers may play off of those feelings. “The spread of apps is now so enormous among the back-to-school segment that kids simply can’t see themselves without an i-Something device,” says Lindstrom.  Retailers are very well aware of this and will thus push the focus on these devices even more during this season.” So if marketers and retailers enter this year’s back-to-school season having done their homework, experts say to make sure you do yours, too.

Study those sales and memorize those bargain-finding strategies—because in the matter of your bottom line, this is indeed a test.

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