Back-to-school shopping is no longer a frenzied one-day spending spree. Families are spending more, but doing it over a longer period of time as they search for the best deals.
Families are expected to spend $670 on average on back-to-school shopping, up 5% from last year, according to data out Thursday from the National Retail Federation. That includes spending on school supplies, clothes, and electronics.
But analysts and parents say the slow economic recovery, plus access to near-constant online deals, means back-to-school shopping is no longer a big event.
Instead, parents like Tracy Seebold, 48, are shopping strategically online and picking up additional in-store items when necessary. Seebold, who lives in Mifflinburg, Penn., with her 10 and 14-year-old children has already purchased a few school items, including new shoes. She says she started now so that she could spread her purchases out over the next couple of months.
"We had done a big spree up until a couple years ago but that's fallen to the wayside," Seebold says. "I love going back-to-school shopping but it's just not possible this year."
Seebold plans to spend no more than $300 during the official back-to-school season, and is limiting her purchases to necessities like notebooks and "first-day" outfits in hopes there will be better deals after school starts.
Many shoppers are likely spreading out their shopping, says Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economics Advisors. He says the back-to-school season is no longer limited to a single day of shopping in the middle of July or August.
But just because consumers aren't crowding stores in the weeks leading up to school, doesn't mean they're not spending more over time. Naroff says consumers with strategies like Seebold's may actually end up spending more over time.
"It may not be the big push that retailers really expect but it doesn't mean (consumers) aren't spending," Naroff says.
Combined spending for back-to-school is expected to reach almost $75 billion - up 3% from last year,
And it's not just parents seeking out discounts, says Laura Champine, a retail analyst with Canaccord Genuity.
"Even kids are price sensitive now ... and are looking for a combination of good prices and good quality and good style," Champine says.
Brad Wilson of BradsDeals.com says the best way to save during back-to-school shopping is to avoid shopping at the school store and bricks and mortar stores in general because in-store merchandising efforts are designed to get consumers to buy more. Mark LoCastro, spokesman for DealNews, says if consumers can hold out on their back-to-school shopping until Labor Day sales, they can save even more on their purchases.
Some of best deals Wilson recommends:
· Classroom supplies: Walmart and Staples are likely to have the best deals but Walgreens can also have big discounts, especially at the end of July and early August. Wilson says shopping at these stores online can also save time and money. Staples currently has a coupon for $5 off in-store purchases of $25 or more.
· Backpacks: Kohl's is offering up to 40% off on backpacks and an additional 15% with the coupon available on BradsDeals.com
· Technology: Students can receive a $100 gift card from Apple when they buy a Mac or a $50 gift card when they buy an iPad or iPhone if they shop online. The Apple Education Online Store is one of the only places to offer discounts to people with .edu email addresses. Otherwise, Wilson says technology re-sellers like Amazon and Best Buy can help save up to $200 on Apple products. LoCastro says the best time to purchase laptops is in August, which is when 62% of all 2013 laptop deals occurred.
Camie Donohue lives in Minnetonka, Minn., and has two elementary school-aged children. Like Seebold, she says she's limiting her budget and skipping the back-to-school shopping spree. Fortunately for Donohue, her children's school makes the classroom portion of the supply list easy with a prepackaged box available for purchase – a trend Wilson says is becoming popular among parents and schools, though he says families could save 30% to 40% by doing their own shopping online.
"If I went through every single item (in the box) and price compared, I could probably save a couple dollars," Donohue says. "But that's time I'd rather spend comparing the price of snow boots than pencils."