The simple reason why this is so is that very soon, almost every store will be putting kids’ scissors, notebooks, glue, pencils, and other back-to-school merchandise on clearance. For that matter, clothing marketed for the back-to-school season will be deeply discounted starting around Labor Day as well if not sooner, in order to make space for the next big seasons for retailers—Halloween and Christmas.
Don’t tell your kids about this, especially not at the start of the school year when homework and exams are about to become painful realities, but the truth is that sometimes it pays to sit back and do nothing. Many consumers are utilizing this “strategy” this summer, though it’s unclear whether they’re doing so consciously—or, more likely, lazily and obliviously. The Integer Group estimated that more than half of shoppers wait until one to three weeks before school starts to buy school supplies, and that 36% of consumers won’t do any back-to-school shopping at all, up from 31% who skipped back-to-school purchases last year.
The most prudent, responsible, cost-conscious approach for back-to-school shopping is for a parent to dutifully browse for bargains throughout the summer and scoop them up when they’re optimal. Back-to-school promotions started even before the previous school year ended, and Staples, Walmart, dollar stores, and other retailers have periodically rolled out 1¢ folders, 25¢ rulers and protractors, and other loss-leader sales in order to rev up business. For that matter, truly savvy shoppers understand that kids tend to need more or less the same supplies every fall, so they strategically snatch up pencils, notebooks, and whatnot whenever they’re at rock-bottom prices throughout the year.
The ship has sailed on the chance to do the prudent thing and buy items whenever the optimal price appears. That approach is too time-consuming and requires too much attention for the average parent anyway. This late in the game, there are two options left: 1) Turn into a whirling dervish and hit one store to buy everything your student needs in the few days before school starts; or 2) make do with what you have for the first day of school, then complete your kids’ list sometime around Labor Day.
The first option is the more responsible one, of course, and ensures that your child will have all of the required supplies on time. Yet the Integer study found that price is the most important element in back-to-school purchases for roughly three-quarters of consumers, and with this first approach, shoppers will wind up paying more than is necessary for many school staples.
That leaves us with the second (slacker) option, which is attractive not only because you can do nothing for a little while longer, but also because of a bonus in the form of saving a bundle of money. By the time Labor Day arrives, the majority of what you need to buy will likely be marked down for clearance sales. You’ll get the cheaper prices on glue, notebooks, and such without having to shop around, monitor Sunday circulars, or hit multiple stores. All in all, you’ll save time, effort, and money, with the main tradeoff being that your kid might get dirty looks from the teacher if he shows up on the first day of school with an empty backpack—or perhaps no backpack.
“Like most seasonal items, the longer you wait to buy back-to-school items, the better your chances are of scoring a significant discount,” said Lindsay Sakraida, features director at the deal-tracking site dealnews.com. Normally, clearance aisles are a hodgepodge of random, undesirable leftovers, but this isn’t the case for basics like pens, notebooks, and calculators, which are more or less immune to trends and seasonality, said Sakraida. “While sorting through the clearance section can sometimes yield limited options, it’s less of an issue with school supplies, making this an even more appealing option for cash-strapped back-to-schoolers.”
She suggested starting to look for big back-to-school markdowns a few days before Labor Day weekend. Around that time a year ago, Staples and Office Max cut prices dramatically on many items, sometimes with discounts of more than 75%. Other retailers will surely be posting printable coupons good for 20% or 25% your entire purchase over the holiday weekend, said Sakraida.
And prices will only drop from there as retailers try to clear shelf space to prep for the next season’s goods. In terms of fall clothing and school supplies alike, “look for the deals to get pretty aggressive by mid-September,” NPD retail analyst Marshal Cohen told the Wall Street Journal.
Even if your kids are fully outfitted for this school year by then, it might be wise to hit the clearance section and round up some supplies for next fall. You know prices will be cheap. And perhaps by planning ahead you’ll show your children that even the laziest procrastinators can change their ways and become more responsible.