Seven Tips for Better Back-to-School Shopping

Back-to-school shopping requires an understanding of how stores use sales and pricing to influence your decision, how to budget wisely and which times are best to buy.

In our guide, we combined our research along with interviews of experts to generate seven tips related to retail strategies, planning, and purchase timing. These tips clarify back-to-school shopping in a way that will make this season’s purchases easier and cheaper.

The first expert we reached out to is Melina Palmer, a behavioral economics expert and founder of consulting firm The Brainy Business. Palmer has a master’s degree in behavioral economics from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

Our second expert is Ivy Chou, a retail specialist who works with DealsPlus, a website you can go to for coupon codes and comparisons of back-to-school sales and deals from various stores.

1. Watch Out for the Quantity Discounts

Doing back-to-school shopping on a budget isn’t as simple as it seems. According to Palmer, it’s a constant dialogue between what you see, what your sub-conscious is doing and what your conscious mind is thinking.

“In the case of making buying decisions, they’re made on a sub-conscious level. You think your conscious brain is in control when you’re trying to get in and out of the store,” Palmer said. “Your subconscious is filtering everything around it and picking out things it thinks are important for your conscious to make decisions about.”

Retailers know they have to appeal to your subconscious, so they craft their endcaps, aisles, and sales to speak to your inner shopper, Palmer said.

One of the techniques they use is called anchoring and adjustment. Our brain has a difficult time knowing the value of something when we’re shopping, so retailers give us a frame of reference for a certain product.

A good example is a store selling 10 packs of pens for $10. One study reveals, Palmer said, that you’ll buy 38% more when 10 packs of pens are on sale than if one pack of pens was on sale.

The reason is that, normally, you may only buy one pack of pens. But, when you see the sale anchoring 10 packs for $10, you feel like you’re being smart by not buying 10 packs – surely, you’re more reasonable than that. So, you adjust downward to six packs.

If the 10 for $10 deal wasn’t there and it just said $1 per pack, you’d probably only buy two or three.

“You’ll notice when you’re going to buy things that, if you have 10 for $10 instead of a $1 each, you’ll end up buying more than if they were $1 a piece,” Palmer said. “You think, we’ll I’ll stock up for the year. Your conscious brain will provide an explanation why you’re doing it but your subconscious has already made the choice.”

So, when you’re headed to the store, make a list of what you need and include how many of each item you need. Use this as your anchor, not the store’s volume discounts.

2. Mid-August Is the Time to Buy

Retailers are eager to earn your business because they know that the back-to-school shopping season is easy money. Parents have to buy school supplies for their kids, so retailers market like crazy their school-supply sales.

When are the best back-to-school sales? Well, retail expert Ivy Chou said, mid-August is the way to go.

“The best deals on school supplies also arrive around mid-August, when retailers drop prices even more as competition increases and back-to-school sales near their end,” Ivy said.

3. Budget Before You Shop

In general, it’s a great idea to make a budget for anything you spend your money on. Whether it’s Christmas shopping, back-to-school or your monthly grocery and bills.

However, budgets are even more crucial before your kids start school because it’s really easy to get carried away with your spending.

So, Ivy told us, take some time to sit down and review what your school says your child needs, what you already have on hand and what can wait until Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

“Make a budget beforehand, make a list of everything you actually need, then be on the lookout for the best sales and coupons,” Ivy said. “If you buy items you don’t need, even the best deals are money down the drain.”

Sites like DealDash are a good place to go to get updates on the latest sales and coupons. You’ll also get a sense of what a proper price is for a specific item because you’ll have a chance to see the price tags from several different stores.

4. Watch Out for Big Sales on Little Items

Have you ever noticed that, when you head into a store during back-to-school season, you’re usually welcomed with a big display of heavily discounted pencils, pens, and papers?

Ivy says this is a common tactic used by retailers to get you in the buying mood and, hopefully, lure you into other parts of the store where you’ll spend more money.

Why will you spend more? Well, if you aren’t going to the store with a specific list of items to buy, there’s a good chance you haven’t researched fair prices on items in other parts of the store.

Let’s say you go to Target because you found out they have the best deals on pens and pencils, which happen to be right at the front of the store.

After you load up on the small stuff, you think, “Hey, I’m here. I might as well check out some other stuff.”

There’s a good chance “other stuff” will be items you didn’t research ahead of time because, back when you were planning your budget, you didn’t include those items on your list and didn’t comparison shop ahead of time.

“The retail store’s main goal is to lure you into the store to buy everything else you need at higher prices,” Ivy said. “The more banners, flashy store signs and pretty colors you see, the more you’ll spend.”

5. Tiered Online Offers Aren’t as Great as They Seem

One of the classic retail tactics you’ll see at certain stores’ websites is tiered savings. For example, if you spend $100, you can get $25 off your purchase and if you spend $200, you can get $50.

At face value, this looks like a great deal because you’re getting a pretty big chunk of money hacked off your bill. However, what many back-to-school shoppers fail to realize is that this is just another way of a website getting you to spend money on items that may be cheaper somewhere else.

If one of these websites catches your interest, take a minute to browse through their inventory, paying special attention to the prices of items you have on your shopping list. Are they a little higher than what you’ve seen on other sites?

If that’s the case, it may not be worth it to spend more just to get free shipping or to get that $25-off-$100 deal they’re offering.

“If you only need a $25 backpack, that’s an extra $25 – $75 they’re earning off you by employing this tactic,” Ivy said.

6. Buy Computers on Black Friday and Cyber Monday

We know this is a tough one; what kid doesn’t want to show up to school with a new laptop?

However, the principle of patience is key here. Retailers may have a few sales on laptops as the school year approaches, but there’s a good chance those sales aren’t going to match the discounts and clearance prices you’ll see on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

“If you can wait until Black Friday and Cyber Monday, buy big-ticket purchases like laptops, tablets, and MacBooks then,” Ivy said. “It's only a few more months, but could equate to hundreds of dollars in savings.”

If your child needs a basic laptop without all the bells and whistles of a Mac, then consider sticking with budget laptops from Acer or HP. Both of these companies sell Chromebooks for less than $200, the only drawback being that Chromebooks run internet-based apps.

If your student needs native software like Word, then the Acer Aspire is a budget-friendly laptop that, at the time of publishing, cost $279.99 at regular price.

Should you be able to muster up the patience to wait until Black Friday or Cyber Monday, that same laptop could be a lot closer to $200.

7. Big-Box Stores Tend to Have the Best Prices

It’s no secret that we live in a time when hacks are commonplace and everyone is looking for a new angle that veers away from traditional choices in favor of the road less traveled.

However, when it comes to back-to-school shopping, the big-name stores are usually the ones who really do have the best prices.

As Ivy pointed out to us, these stores have, over the past couple of years, become more consumer-friendly through programs like free shipping and various discount codes.

“I still believe Walmart, Target, Amazon, Staples, and Office Depot/OfficeMax have the best back-to-school offers and now, many stores’ best offers are online exclusives,” Chou said. “These stores have dropped their minimum threshold for free shipping in the last couple of years as well, and all offer either rock bottom prices, online codes, or printable coupons for extra savings.”

Final Thoughts

Nailing your back-to-school budget is as much as it is about understanding the dynamics between the stores where you shop and your subconscious and conscious choices about what you’ll buy.

The key to the successful, budget-based back-to-school season is to prepare ahead of time by making a list of what you need, including both the items you want and the quantity you want.

Doing so creates a framework from which you can make your decisions and tell your subconscious that there are rules that need to be followed.

On top of that, you’ll want to shop in Mid-August, avoid tiered spending offers that incentive bigger purchases and hold off on computers until later in the year.

Having the right mentality and focus when you go out to shop sets the tone for the back-to-school season. If you want to learn specific ways to save money on the items you buy, take a moment to read through our list of 5 smart tips for reducing back-to-school costs.

J.R. Duren

J.R. Duren is a personal finance reporter who examines credit cards, credit scores, and various bank products. J.R. is a three-time winner at the Florida Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism contest. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and his insight has been featured on Investopedia, GOBankingRates, H&R Block and Huffington Post.