Back-to-school shopping isn't just an end-of-summer activity anymore.
Deals on classroom supplies, clothes and electronics started before Fourth of July picnics and close to 40 percent of consumers have already made back-to-school purchases, according to The International Council of Shopping Centers.
The National Retail Federation estimates that although American families with children in grades K-12 will spend about $670 on school needs — an increase of about five percent over last year — parents will still be looking to stretch budgets and maximize savings during what's become the second-biggest spending event of the year (after Christmas shopping).
"We know Americans are still grappling with their purchase decisions every day," said Matthew Shay, National Retail Federation president and CEO, in a press release. "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."
To that end, consumers are looking for deals at discount and department stores; buying store brand and generic items; and comparison shopping online to help save money — and they're monitoring their spending carefully.
Online retailer Zulily polled more than 6,000 parents across the country and found that the cost of back-to-school shopping is the number one stress for moms and dads as they prepare kids for the new school year.
In response to the early demand for deals, retailers are discounting everything from crayons and lunch boxes to dorm décor and computers.
Staples launched its back-to-school season sales with a new price match guarantee and back-to-school for less list in June. In July, Apple announced their back-to-school promo: a $100 gift card for any college student who purchases a qualifying Mac, and a $50 gift card for students who buy a qualifying iPhone or iPod.
Target offered $15 gift cards to shoppers spending $75 on select dorm bedding and L.L. Bean discounted popular backpacks by 25 percent.
Although the majority of consumers expect to complete back-to-school purchases sooner than later, customers who wait for tax-free shopping holidays, (Connecticut's tax free week runs from Aug. 17 through Aug. 23), or put off purchases until mid-September can expect to save even more, says Mark LoCastro of DealNews.com.
"Retailers offer great deals to go along with any tax holidays," says LoCastro. "And once kids are back in the classroom, school supplies still on the shelf will be marked down to make room for holiday merchandise."
Whenever you shop, LoCastro suggests researching regular prices and making a list before you shop.
"The more informed you are, the better deals you're going to get," LoCastro says.
More Ways To Save:
>> Repurpose what you have. Check last year's school supplies for rulers, pencil boxes, calculators, notebooks and more.
>> Organize a clothing and school supplies swap with other moms.
>> Make money on what you're not using. Stores like Once Upon a Child and Plato's Closet will buy good-condition kids' clothing in exchange for cash or store credits.
>> Stores offer lost leaders like penny folders and 25 cent notebooks in the hopes that you'll buy everything else on your list, (at full price), while you're there. Scan the sales, then get the best buys from each.
>> Get the best buys on school uniforms. Check Sears, JC Penney, Walmart, Old Navy, FrenchToast.com, Rainbow and some Dollar General stores (including the Dollar General location in East Hartford), for savings.