Shopping for school
Those who don't know the rules are doomed to spend too much, shop too long or fail to find the right stuff. The new rules of back to school are fed by an increasingly consumer-driven, penny-pinching and
techno-savvy culture. If the old rule was "Shop early and often," the new rule is: Shop late, and strategically — while embracing technology as your retail lie-detector.
How to find out the most critical new rules? No worries. USA TODAY's done the work for you. We asked 10 of the savviest retail gurus, consumer watchdogs and trendmeisters to help us clue in consumers to the 12 most compelling back-to-school shopping tips for 2011-12.
Before rushing off to the mall this holiday weekend take note: You'll need more than your car keys, credit card and cellphone. You need information on how to spend less and get more.
Before the back-to-school season wraps up in a few weeks, shoppers will spend upwards of $22.8 billion, the National Retail Federation projects. Toss in college, and the figure balloons to $68.8 billion. But the typical family will squeeze even more tightly this year, spending about $603.63 on back-to-school apparel, school supplies and electronics — roughly $3 less than last year, the NRF estimates.
If back-to-school shopping for 2011-12 could be summed up in a single word, it is this: preparation.
"The back-to-school season is like provisioning a soldier for a tour of duty," says futurist Watts Wacker, CEO of FirstMatter. "It encompasses clothes, shoes, supplies — and phone upgrades."
But before heading off on that tour unprotected, the best way to save a buck — and to snare the right duds — could be to read, clip and save these 12 new rules:
1. Pre-shop online.
Parents who once clipped coupons from the newspaper before the big back-to-school shopping trip have a new tactic in a new age: Ask the kids to find the best deals and the fattest coupons online, long before the trip to the mall.
"Kids are doing their homework to learn where to shop, when to shop and even why to shop now," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at research specialist NPD Group.
Before stepping out the door, "Parents and children should scour the Internet," concurs Matthew Shay, CEO of the National Retail Federation. Some 51% of shoppers who own tablet computers say they plan to use them for back-to-school shopping research, according to an NRF survey.
This pre-search should focus on three things: prices, coupons and group deals, says Wendy Liebmann, CEO at WSL Strategic Retail, a retail consultant.
And don't forget to check out the mommy bloggers, notes Irma Zandl, president of The Zandl Group, a trend-research firm. "Marketers and retailers are increasingly tracking these influential blogs for consumer insights," she notes.
2. Shop late.
The notion of doing all the back-to-school shopping before the first school bell rings is utterly outdated, Cohen says. In fact, he says, 61% of consumers recently interviewed by NPD say they plan to shop well into September for back-to-school stuff.
Folks who wait until right before school starts — or even after it starts — tend to get the best deals, Liebmann says. Kids who wait have a leg up on trends by eyeing what others are wearing before they shop, Cohen says.
3. Live by lists.
Bring along — and stick to — your shopping list. Some folks prefer old-fashioned lists on paper, while others download special back-to-school shopping apps. The main purpose of bringing the list, Zandl says, is to help shoppers focus on needs — not wants.
Many retailers have checklists available on their websites. Some are even broken out by grade, Shay says. Some checklists have hyperlinks, giving families the option of shopping directly from retailer websites.
Using a list is "the only way to manage spending, be productive and not let the kids tempt you," Lippmann says.
4. Bring your smartphone.
"Mobile is a secret comparison-shopping weapon," says Rebecca Lieb, a digital marketing consultant. With smartphones in hand, she says, "Consumers are armed and dangerous." By scanning product bar codes or QR codes (those square patterns that can be read by smartphones), shoppers can learn a lot more about products on the shelf — including product reviews and even competitive price information.
Consumers also can sign up for text alerts from most retailers, Shay says, and receive instant coupons to use in the store. Shoppers also can download shopping apps on their phones or tablets that will pull information about their location — and shopping history — and can spit out relevant coupons.
5. Seek new value.
The best deals aren't always just about the lowest price, Cohen says. Some find new "bundling" offers alluring. Microsoft bundles a free Xbox with the purchase of a computer. Apple offers $100 gift cards for Apple products with laptop purchases. And Best Buy bundles Geek Squad service with certain laptop purchases, he says.
"Bundling ensures that parents get the best bang for the buck," Shay says.
6. Sell the old — or reuse.
By using outlets such as eBay, high-schoolers and college students can sell older items to help fund this year's back-to-school purchases, suggests trend-tracker Marian Salzman, president of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR. This way, she says, 2011-12's new school duds and supplies will be "funded on last year's must-have items."
Many are simply reusing the old. "It's not going to be as easy to talk Mom or Dad into things this year — unless last year's backpack has a broken strap, you'll be bringing it to school this year, too," Shay says.
7. Shop unconventionally.
The best back-to-school shopping deals are not always found at conventional retailers, Liebmann says. "Some of the best deals and great surprises are in the oddest places," she advises. She suggests dollar stores for T-shirts and socks; drugstores for deals on snacks, and so-called flash sales (time-limited, steep online discounts) for clothing and beauty supplies.
For students going off to college, Shay suggests shopping at wholesale clubs for bulk purchases of those critical college staples such as instant noodles and granola bars.
8. Use pack power.
Retailers increasingly will respond to group requests, Wacker says. He suggests shoppers with like-minded Facebook friends create economy-of-scale purchasing teams. The group can contact the home office of a retailer and offer to buy a certain amount of pens, pencils or computers for a specific price — almost like a "reverse Groupon," he says. The key: Get an e-mailed letter of authorization from the retailers.
9. Lay down rules.
Among the most important rules is the ability to nudge kids to separate the thrill of purchase from the reality of ownership, advises Paco Underhill, president of Envirosell, a behavioral research firm. "Our best acquisitions are the things we use or wear often," he says. "Back to school is about getting stuff we need for everyday use."
Under this scenario, Liebmann suggests what could be the toughest rule of all to enforce: Don't take the kids shopping — at least not the youngest schoolgoers. "If you want to be smart," she says, "leave the kids at home."
10. Avoid weekends.
For many, the big back-to-school shopping trip to the mall is a family affair that begins early Saturday or Sunday morning and sometimes ends late in the evening. That will likely result in poor choices and unnecessary purchases due to grumpy, exhausted and famished family members.
"Never shop hungry or tired," Underhill warns. "Our discipline and judgment are compromised." The best time to shop: 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday.
There are several reasons for that time and day. Stores won't be so crowded. Service will be better. Shelves will be better stocked. And based on our circadian rhythm, Underhill says, we are most alert at midmorning.
11. Consider second-hand.
Besides stops at the thrift store and Craigslist.org, some families with one eye on shaving costs and another on the environment are turning to the Freecycle Network (www.freecycle.org). This grass-roots, non-profit group encourages folks to give away stuff they don't need and get stuff they do. This, in turn, keeps the stuff out of landfills. "It's perceived to be as good for your pocketbook as it is for the environment," Zandl says.
At the same time, Wacker says, some savvy neighborhoods are forming hand-me-down clubs, where kids of various ages are guaranteed to receive used clothing at the beginning of each school year.
12. Give when you get.
Saving a few nickels isn't the only incentive that's moving families this year. So is the simple notion of helping others.
"Families are filling up on budget items, then packing up a bag for needy children," Salzman says. "Watch for more giving back at the center of the conversation."