Most kids have another six weeks of summer vacation before school is back in session. But retailers are eager to get them -- and their parents -- shopping for supplies a whole lot sooner.
While back-to-school sales typically kick off in August, this year they started in June with deals on computers from stores like Best Buy and Staples, as well as manufacturers including Apple and Dell. Now other retailers are on the bandwagon, pushing purchases of backpacks, notebooks, clothes and other classroom essentials. Kmart's new "back to campus" deals offer 30% off juniors' clothing and 20% on dorm-appropriate appliances like mini-fridges. Staples, which introduced a 15% off "back to school savings pass" in mid-June, has offers in its latest ad for one-cent notepads and binders and 25-cent pens.
The early enticements are likely aimed at reversing recently lackluster retail sales. During the first half of the year, consumers spent 4.6% more than during that period last year, but shoppers have been progressively cutting spending since April, according to the National Retail Federation. Shoppers are being more cautious about how they spend their money, reasoning they might need it for more essential items if the economy continues to be sluggish. "Consumer confidence is down," says James Bieri, principal at Stokas Bieri Real Estate, a Detroit-based retail consulting firm. "That has retailers thinking, we better get ours first."
Experts say some early back-to-school offers should be avoided. Many of the new fall clothing items in circulars are still full price, and experts say shoppers in the market for a laptop can expect cheaper deals in September. Others are worth checking out:
Focus your early buys on summer clearance items that will last into fall, rather than stores' new fall and winter items, says Michelle Madhok, the founder of sale-tracking site SheFinds.com. T-shirts and tank tops are wearable now, and also through the fall layered under sweaters. Dresses, shorts and lightweight sweaters are also good buys. Kohls currently has up to 55% off select kids' clothes, plus extra discounts of up to 30% for store cardholders. Macy's is in the midst of its "Summer Stock-Up" sale, with discounts of up to 40% on men's, women's and kids' apparel.
Colder-weather items -- including jeans, boots and coats -- won't have decent sales until at least September, Madhok says. You're better off waiting. "It's always better to buy late in the season to get a deal," she says.
If you're buying for a college-ID-carrying student, manufacturers have already debuted their fall discount promotions, which tend to be the best discounts available. At Apple, for example, students can get a MacBook Air for $949 instead of $999, and also be rewarded with a $100 gift card for e-books, apps and other media purchases. Dell is offering students a $200 e-gift card for its site, as well as student-only pricing.
But parents who are buying for a younger child or themselves, or are looking for a tablet, it's worth waiting until September for better pricing, says Michael Paulson, a vice president for gadget price-tracker Decide.com. Based on the site's data, prices tend to dip 10% during the last two weeks of September, he says. The best current sales are on older models such as the 15.6" HP Pavilion, which was originally $650 but currently sells for $510, or the 15.6" Toshiba Satellite, originally $680 but currently as low as $544 online.
Current sales can offer a good excuse to stock up on basic supplies like printer paper and pens for kids' and parents' needs alike. In addition to Staples' penny deals, there are also Office Depot deals for 50-cent crayon packs and $4 multi-packs of tape, and at Office Max, packs of pens for $2 and highlighters for $1.
The only reason to wait: if your child's school has yet to release a list of needed supplies. Waiting for that ensures you won't buy too much or the wrong things, and the sales are likely to be good through the rest of the summer, says Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University. Plus, there are often state sales-tax holidays later in the summer that can sweeten the deal for items that aren't currently on sale. "Unless you're buying something that never goes on sale, 4% or 8% off is not that big a deal," she says.