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Consumers seek best Back-to-School bargains wherever they can find them

Delaware Public Media

As Jeanmarie Braddock prepares her back-to-school shopping list for her two young children, she scours newspaper circulars and mailings for the best deals. This year, she also will consult a Facebook page for mothers who live in North Wilmington.

“The moms are great about posting whenever they find a great bargain,” she says. “I saw a post earlier this summer on kids’ bathing suits, so I dashed out and bought them.”

A recent study by Crowdtap, a company that gathers consumer input on products, revealed that blogs and social media are about as effective as traditional advertising in reaching consumers searching for information on back-to-school shopping. And one in four parents expects to tap Pinterest for inspiration on lunches and snacks.

Television commercials, radio spots and newspaper ads still are the No. 1 source on school supplies, with 40 percent of shoppers looking there, compared to 33 percent relying on blogs and social media. But blogs and social media are outpacing traditional ads in the food and snack category, with 45 percent of consumer interest, compared to 34 percent. When it comes to shopping for clothes, new media and traditional media are tied.

In another shift in shopping habits, shoppers are getting an earlier start, according to various surveys.

The traditional start of the back-to-school shopping season is the Fourth of July. But in recent years, consumers haven’t opened their wallets until the last few weeks before the school bell rang.

This year, more than a third—34 percent—of all parents and about half parents of college freshman—49 percent—already had started back-to-school shopping by Independence Day, according to a survey by The Rubicon Project.

Like Braddock, 60 percent of back-to-school shoppers are buying for two or more children, reports a poll by Bizrate Insights. More than half of respondents—56 percent—say their choices are propelled by the personal preferences of their kids. Four in five parents—81 percent—say the budget matters, too, reporting they look for the best deals on items the schools are asking families to provide.

Braddock’s 10-year-old daughter Ellie will begin fifth grade at Hanby Elementary School in North Wilmington. She has a definite influence on what goes in the shopping cart.

“She likes certain colors—pink and purple, blue and aqua—and has her own opinions,” her mother says. “Ellie really likes school and shopping is part of the ritual that goes along with it.”

Benjamin, her 6-year-old son, will start first grade at Hanby, carrying the free backpack the school district distributed last year to all incoming kindergarten students.

There’s no rush for his parents to buy uniforms. They stock up on polo shirts and pants at consignment stores throughout the year.

For back-to-school items, the family shops at Target, Pottery Barn Kids, Marshalls, Staples, “and Sears for shoes.”

These days, Braddock is consulting the school website to see which items teachers are assigning parents to supply on the first day of school. Hanby asks parents to provide such basics as composition books, glue sticks and pencils. The school also is seeking optional donations that will be shared by students, such as tissues, hand sanitizers and zip-lock bags.

The growing trend of schools shifting costs to parents also is reflected in parents’ spending habits, says Pam Goodfellow, principal analyst for Prosper Insights and Analytics, the survey partner for the National Retail Association (NRF), a Washington, D.C.-based trade group.

"Given the extra costs some parents take on these days when it comes to stocking their children's classroom, many will certainly look to take advantage of retailer's sales and promotions as they wrap up their lists," she said in a statement. "More retailers than ever are in the back-to-school spectrum, so it won't be difficult for mom and dad to find what they need wherever they shop, be it their favorite website for free shipping offers or their local drug store for last-minute deals on supplies."

Here are a few seasonal door busters:

  • Staples is offering 25 percent off across the board on school supplies with the purchase of a backpack.
  • Walmart is discounting electronics, including an Apple iPad mini 2 16GB with WiFi for $229 and a Straight Talk Samsung Galaxy S4 4G LTE Prepaid Smartphone discounted from $299 to $149.99.
  • At Kohl’s, kids’ backpacks with such themes as My Little Pony, Spider-Man and The Secret Life of Pets are marked down 50 percent to $14.99.

Target has compiled a detailed checklist for back-to-college shoppers, which includes such specialty items as a backrest pillow, pizza cutter and toilet brush.

According to Prosper’s poll for the NRF, parents are planning to spend about the same as last year. Moms and dads are even more intent on getting the best prices. The survey reports 28 percent of parents with kids age 6-17 are planning to use more coupons than last year for back-to-school purchases. One in four parents—25 percent—will rely on advertising circulars and newspapers for the best bargains. Parents of college students will buy more store brand products (28 percent), shop for sales more often (30 percent) and redeem more coupons (21 percent).

Judith Isabella of Wilmington has growing four kids: Alexander, 8; Tristan, 7; Ethan, 5; and Autumn, 4. Favorite retailers include the Children’s Place, Crazy 8, Old Navy, Gymboree, Target and Dollar Tree.

Isabella is always looking for opportunities to save on clothes, such as school swap shops where families can exchange gently worn garments twice a year. And she is thinking ahead.

“There are some great consignment sales, Facebook groups, and rewards coupons to get great deals on both new and used clothing,” she says. “I also tend to buy sizes in advance if there's a great deal on them. Then I keep them in a storage container by size until my child grows into that size.”

Isabella expects to spend slightly less than she did last year.

In the Rubicon Project survey, 61 percent of all parents said they will spend slightly more, about $917 per child on average. Parents of college freshman have the biggest tab, an average of $1,378 per child, almost twice the $684 the average K-12 parent are expected to spend.

So why the increase?  Most of that money will be devoted to tech-related items. While school supplies and clothes are priorities, the biggest budget item for all age groups is technology, an average of $343 for students K-12 and $470 for college freshman.

Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.