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OK, the Eclipse Is Over — Time to Start the Back-to-School Shopping

Retailers are rolling out deals galore, if you know where to look and how to "shop smart."
Monthly Retail Sales Statistics Dip In July
DALY CITY, CA - AUGUST 13: School teacher Liza Gleason shops for back to school supplies at a Target store August 13, 2008 in Daly City, California. With stores gearing up for back to school shopping, the Commerce Department reported today that retail sales fell 0.1 percent in July, the first time in five months. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Back-to-School spending is on track to hit record highs this year, with the NRF predicting that Americans will spend $83.6 billion on classroom and college gear — up more than 10 percent from last year’s $75.8 billion.

With that kind of money on the table, retailers are rolling out deals galore. And they’re launching them earlier than usual.

“Retailers are advertising the event earlier than ever as a result of shopping patterns by consumers,” said Kendal Perez, savings expert for CouponSherpa.

Why Wait? Because The Savings Will Get Better

Consumers may relish getting the BTS shopping extravaganza over with, but it pays off to wait.

“The longer you can wait for some supplies, the more you’ll save on them,” said Brent Shelton, online shopping expert at FatWallet. Shelton advises that consumers buy electronics such as laptops in August, which is when they’re typically seeing rock bottom pricing.

"Consumers can expect basic laptops around $300 or less, as well as high-end models that are several hundred dollars off," said Lindsay Sakraida, director of content marketing with DealNews.

But you may want to hold off until September to buy classroom essentials such as notebooks and pencils.

Discounts will continue to appear through the end of September and even on into October as retailers scurry to clear inventory.

“Some savvier BTS shoppers will buy enough to get their kids started, then stock up during clearance sales,” said Shelton.

How to Beat the Crowds

Part of the reason you may be inclined to get BTS shopping over with ASAP is because stores can get so nightmarishly crowded.

One way to beat the crowds is to avoid them altogether by shopping online — but this isn’t always your best way to save. Not even if you're using your Amazon Prime Membership.

“Staples' 50-cent and $1 deals are limited to in-store shoppers, and in many cases stores like Target and Walmart beat Amazon's prices on basic supplies,” said Perez. “Ordering online may be more convenient but overall, parents will find better prices when they shop in-store.”

How to get the in-store deals without the in-store chaos? Avoid the busiest shopping days.

The location intelligence company Foursquare analyzed back-to-school shopping foot traffic and found that BTS peak shopping days appear to depend on whether you live in the suburbs or in urban areas. For city dwellers, the most popular day to visit a big box retailer in 2016 was August 13, while for suburbanites, September 3 was the busiest big box day; department stores saw the most foot traffic from urbanites on August 20, while suburban types flooded in three week prior, on July 30. Shopping malls attracted the largest number of people from both the burbs and the city on July 30, 2016.

The most crowded days historically have one thing in common: they’re all Saturdays. Try to go on Sunday or better yet, during the week. Most big box retailers and shopping malls are open until at least 9 p.m. during the week.

Don’t Fall for Fake Deals

As the BTS specials pour in, beware of offers that may sound too good to be true — they probably are.

“Many stores will offer a back-to-school version of a ‘doorbuster’ during their sales, and they will be designed to seem almost unbelievable,” said Sakraida. “That will entice you into their stores, where the retailer hopes you spend more on other things while you're there. While the doorbusters are genuinely good deals, the other items likely aren't. Shoppers should thus never forget to price check everything while shopping for the back-to-school season, so they can avoid these higher-margin items that pad the sale.”

Also be wary of promotions that come with “free gifts,” Sakraida warns. These bundles may “obscure the real value of what you're getting. Consider whether the freebie is actually valuable to you before buying, and price check each of the items in a bundle individually so you know how much you're actually saving; it might not be as much as you think.”

The bottom line: “Just because a store prominently touts an item as a special, doesn't mean it's actually something you should buy,” stated Sakraida. “Check the price of that item, or a similar item, online at other stores to make sure you're getting a good price. And keep shipping costs in mind if it's cheaper online.”

Make a List, and Don’t Bring the Little Ones

While it makes sense to stock up on some BTS essentials while they’re on mega sale, be wary of impulse buys that you really don’t need.

Rachel Rosenthal, founder of Rachel and Company, a full-service professional organizing firm, recommends that shoppers make a list of exactly what they or their children need, and stick to it.

“It's tempting to grab new products that seem cute or exciting,” said Rosenthal. “But unless you have a real need for that product it can often just add to the clutter in your home since it truly is just an ‘extra’ and not adding value.”

Because children are possibly the best impulse buyers on the planet (hey, it’s not like it’s their money!), it’s best to leave the little ones at home. But the grown kids? You may want to bring them along as they may be more up to speed on the slickest ways to save.

“Older kids may be able to help you find good savings, and picky kids can help you select the styles they want versus having to return stuff they don’t, and won’t use,” said Shelton.

Your kid may also know more about what their school requires in terms of supplies. If you have any doubts though, check with the school. As Shelton points out, "Some schools are very particular on what type of notebooks, pencils, pens, glues etc. that they want."