published Friday, July 29th, 2011

5 ways to be smart about back-to-school shopping

By ANNE D’INNOCENZIO

AP Retail Writer

NEW YORK — Prices on back-to-school items from socks to notebooks are rising 10 percent on average, but there are lots of great deals — and new ways to find them.

Stores and manufacturers are redesigning their websites, planning new promotions and offering “savings” cards and other gimmicks to encourage consumers to spend more than last year, when some industry forecasters are saying shoppers will hold the line or spend only a little more.

Office supply seller Staples Inc., for example, has created a website with special back-to-school deals and shopping tips, and it is selling a $10 “savings pass” that gives shoppers 15 percent off school supplies until Aug.13. Sears Holdings Corp, which operates Kmart, Sears and other businesses, has launched a new, more user-friendly online layaway shop. And Office Depot Inc. and other chains are luring shoppers with penny sales that include items like notebooks and glue.

Here are five tips to embrace when shopping for children’s clothing and school supplies:

— TAKE STOCK OF YOUR CLOSETS: Before you go anywhere, make a list of what you need and check your kids’ closets to figure out what they can still wear and use and what actually does needs to be replaced, says Jody Rohlena, senior editor at Consumer Reports’ ShopSmart.

As for school supplies, many households already have the paper and glue sticks that kids need to start the school year. So check what’s lying around on shelves and in drawers before buying piles more.

— USE ONLINE BUDGET TOOLS: As with any spending, know your budget for back-to-school purchases. Factor in everything from computers to pencils. Then stick to it — remembering especially that there’s no requirement to buy every item on the list at once or at one store. And, while some things may need to be top quality, not everything has to be.

Financial planning websites like mint.com can help. More effective for some may be a layaway program, which can be less expensive than using a credit card, even including fees. At Kmart, shoppers pay $15 or 10 percent of a purchase total and make payments every two weeks, either online or at a register in a store, and college students can have the products delivered to a store close to campus. For purchases as big as a TV or as small as a backpack or calculator, elayaway.com lets customers break the price into monthly payments for a fee of roughly 2 percent for three to 13 payments.

— SEPARATE WANTS FROM NEEDS: A child may make a good case for an Apple iPad, which costs $500 or more, even when last year’s computer will do the trick. So C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, urges parents to collaborate with their children on a realistic list of what they need. If there’s money left in the back-to-school budget, then they can take a look at the extras.

— SWAP IT OUT: Many websites now sponsor trades of used kids’ things. ThredUP, where shoppers swap children’s clothing and toys, recently added books. The way it works is anyone giving things away bundles them by age and gender and lists them on the website. To request one of the listed boxes, you pay $5 to ThredUP plus $10.95 for shipping, and ThredUP e-mails the donor a prepaid shipping label. Members rate each other based on the quality of the stuff they receive. Also check out Swap.com and Swapmamas.com.

Beemer says he’s found shoppers are cutting their overall back-to-school spending as much as 60 percent by swapping clothing and other items.

— SHOP AT THE RIGHT TIME: For clothing and gadgets, you may be able to combine a sale and a coupon with a state-tax holiday for a triple discount, says Rohlena.

Start by checking — at www.taxadmin.org/fta/rate/sales—holiday.html — whether your state is among 16 celebrating tax holidays this year. For clothing, where price increases are expected to be among the highest, remember that kids actually wear summer clothes for the first couple months of the school year so you can spread out those purchases. Then check end-of-summer sales, where you often can find lots of things on your back-to-school list (for less than you’d pay in back-to-school events). Finally, head online to sundaysaver.com for weekly sales circulars and newspaper ads, and check Pricegrabber.com for localized deals and real-time information on availability.

———

The AP’s Smart Spending column offers tips and insight on reining in the cost of everything from jewelry to groceries and from spa services to utilities. Email comments and suggestions to retail(at)ap.org.

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