With more than $500 per child on the line, parents have to think frugally when shopping for back-to-school.

We need to, because buying school supplies is very different experience than it was just a generation ago. For one thing, not only are we spending a lot more on technology — we’re also using tech to help us find bargains.

Ways to save - and how much we spend - on back-to-school

“Back-to-school consumers are innovative and resourceful shoppers who are helping to shape the way retailers market their products,” said Sharon Banfield, director of public relations of PriceGrabber.

Her company surveyed nearly 2000 people, and found that many are be taking advantage of some nontraditional online methods to find the hottest back-to-school deals.

Seeking deals on school & office supplies

To get real steals on school and office supplies, shoppers should hit stores during the first days of August — but you have to go to the right places to get the best deals.

“Don’t dash into an office-supply store to buy everything,” said Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of ShopSmart magazine, from Consumer Reports.“If you find yourself beyond the sale bins, you could wind up paying more than twice as much as at a discount store.”

ShopSmart also conducted a price scan of common school and office supplies and found the biggest differences in price — at least 50 percent — on these seven items: notebook paper, security envelopes, sticky notes, one-subject notebooks, two-pocket folders, glue sticks, and pens. While Walmart was the low-price winner, similar items were just a few cents more at Target.

5 easy ways to save on back-to-school stuff

1) Look for store-brand supplies. They’re not easy to find (Walmart had almost none), but shoppers who do can save as much as 74 percent compared to name-brand supplies.

2) Check out weekly sales circulars the first of the month for the best deals. Sites such as Spoofee.com and SundaySaver.com links shoppers to local ads for dozens of stores.

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3) Download the Weekly Ads & Sales app.  This mobile tool, free for Apple, allows users to view the latest ad pages while on the go without dealing with paper clutter.

4) Look for sales online. ShopSmart found online prices for OfficeDepot, Staples, Target and Walmart closely matched those in stores, but shoppers may have to shell out for shipping.

5) Ask for a price match.  Shoppers who find a better deal somewhere else can show their phone or a paper ad at checkout at stores with price-matching policies.

How technology can help get the best back-to-school buys

When PriceGrabber survey respondents were asked to select all the ways their back-to-school shopping behavior will change compared to last year, 57 percent said they will attempt to buy more items that are “on sale,” while 42 percent say they will comparison shop for the best price.

Average family shopping costs for…

  • High school students: $682.99
  • Middle school/junior high: $682.13
  • Elementary school-age: $580.94

Source: National Retail Federation

Shoppers are clearly looking for deals online, as 39 percent said they will shop online more than in prior years. (According to the National Retail Federation, more than one-third of back-to-school shoppers expect to make some portion of their purchases online.) Another 39 percent plan to buy only the necessities; 26 percent will use more store coupons; while 19 percent said they will shop at less expensive stores.

Back-to-school shoppers also plan to cash in on store loyalty programs, with 16 percent planning to increase their use of store or credit cards offering rewards points. In 2013, only 11 percent of consumers said they would maintain their shopping habits from the previous fall, leaving a majority of shoppers looking for the best budget buys.

Mobile shopping more common

As the world of mobile shopping continues to grow, 46 percent of back-to-school shoppers said they would use their smartphone to find deals this year.

When mobile shoppers were asked to select all the ways they plan to use their smartphone to save money on back-to-school items, 67 percent noted they will check prices online before making offline purchases; 47 percent will read retailer discount emails while in the store; another 47 percent will have retailer coupons directly texted to their phone; 42 percent plan to make purchases online from their cell phone; 30 percent will use mobile apps and bar code scanners; and 29 percent will check store inventory online before shopping in-store.

Overall school spending still in the billions

According to National Retail Federation’s 2014 Back-to-School Survey, conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, American families with children in grades K-12 will spend spend on $26.5 billion on back to school products in 2014. This shopping will be driven by increased demand for electronic items, along with parents’ need to restock their children’s school supplies from last year.

Says NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay, “Throughout the history of this survey, spending has fluctuated based on family needs each year, and this summer, we expect parents to continue to use caution, but also make smart decisions for their family budget that is a good balance between what their children ‘want’ and what they actually need.”


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