Back-to-school sales: What, already?

Kids all over the country are in mourning, having seen “back to school” signs and adverts since early July. Today’s circulars included deals like 1-cent manual pencil sharpeners (Office Depot), 25-cent crayons (Kmart), free-after-rebate yellow highlighters (Staples) and $9 backpacks (Target).

It’s not time to buy yet, though.

Retailers are pushing these “sales” earlier and earlier because there’s gold in them thar pencil cases: The National Retail Federation estimates that $68 billion will be spent on back-to-school shopping, including back-to-college sales. (This includes clothing as well as school supplies.)

Early sales mean early buying, especially from folks who want to get it all done now so they can kick back for the rest of the summer. But the smart money, as it were, is to wait until the real deals start showing up at the end of July.

In past years I’ve seen some astonishing prices, such as 10 pencils for a penny and packages of notebook paper for a nickel. If you don’t get a Sunday newspaper then check the online ads for stores like Staples, Office Max, Office Depot, Target, Walgreens and Kmart.

The first three tend to have the really super loss leaders. Keep in mind that:

  • You should get there on Sunday if possible, since these deals are generally “while supplies last.” If the ad doesn’t say that, ask for a rain check.
  • Small- or home-business owners can find a lot of office supplies among the backpacks and markers. How much did you pay for your last 10-pack of pens? I’ve seen them go for a quarter or less at these sales.
  • If you use your printer a lot, watch for loss leaders on paper. This week at Staples, for example, you can get a ream of paper for 50 cents after rebate (which you can file online).
  • If you must do goodie bags for your kid’s birthday party, watch for hot deals on crayons, markers and those mini-composition notebooks.

About those back-to-college sales: The NRF says that the average per-family expenditure will be about $800, down slightly from last year.

That surprised me. Last week I was in Bed Bath & Beyond to use up remaining credit on a gift card I got for Christmas. Everywhere I looked was college, college, college – from wastebaskets to clocks to extra-long dorm sheets.

That last gave me an idea for a sure-fire moneymaker: Marketing extra-long “dorm condoms” to frat boys. You just couldn’t miss.

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  1. ImJuniperNow

    My local Dollar Store has Halloween stuff out. No lie.

    I can understand KMart encouraging people to do their school shopping now and have it on layaway, but really………

  2. My favorite back to school display was at Target last year… cups, long picnic tables, and ping pong balls. They sure know what’s important to a lot of college students LOL

  3. zzzzzz

    Dorm kids could shop at Freecycle at the end of summer session–they could probably pick up some free stuff and not even have to worry about getting it to the dorm.

  4. When we were in Staples to pick up… I think it was an ink cartridge or something… I saw a “deal” where you paid $10 to get 20% off any back to school items for the next three weeks.

    Gee, who can resist?

    That said, I am looking forward to back to school sales because I can pick up a cheap cookware set (they always have them as dorm specials) since about half our pans have deep gouges in the teflon and have more than served their purpose over the last 10 or so years. That said, I don’t want to pay REAL prices, now do I?

    • Donna Freedman

      @Abigail: I could never get over the shame of your paying retail. 😉

  5. Donna, I have been shocked at the prices considered “special.” I am waiting for the really good sales just before school starts. Yes, I got 150 pages of loose leaf paper for a penny at Office Max. Since there is no Office Depot in town, I have to settle for the OM prices. Right now, I am looking for a deal. My granddaughter read her list of things needed for school. I think I have all but three things in my stash where I went overboard using my “free” credit earned by recycling cartridges and (the long ink things)…my memory is failing me on this. So, if the deals are not as good this year, I have last year’s deal to fall back on. The deal I want–1 yellow legal pad. I don’t want to have to buy three. I am thinking of a trade with someone who regularly uses them!

  6. Now A Country Mouse

    I love to pick up crayons and watercolor paints for stocking stuffers. I won’t touch crayons in the store from October – July. I cannot bring myself to pay $1.09 for a 24 pack that sells for 24 cents or lower in August/Sept.
    I know over the years in my area of the country that the start of school has gradually moved from the last week of August to the first week of August…most of my neighborhood kids go back August 8th…one nephew starts back on August 4th.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Now A Country Mouse: My sister and I hit the loss-leader sales and takes bags and bags of school supplies to a food bank/social services agency in North Seattle. It’s great fun to deliver the items because they are so desperately needed. She’s already bought 10 backpacks (from the clearance table, of course) to donate.
      I keep back a couple of the boxes of crayons, though, because we also adopt a family for the holidays. They go well with the coloring books I pick up in late January for as little as 9 cents at Walgreens.
      There’s something about that new-crayon smell. 🙂

  7. I wonder if stuff like tisssues and hand sanitizer goes on sale too. I know the teachers were asking for those types of products as well.

    Wow, $800….that’s a lot. I hope that includes clothes, shoes, etc. But still it seems steep unless you have a pile of kids.

    • Donna Freedman

      @First Gen: As noted in the piece, it does include clothing as well as school supplies. But I agree it sounds steep. Of course, it is an average — those who shop at Nordstrom raise the bar while those of us who shop at yard sales lower it. 🙂
      Last year I saw hand sanitizer on sale at the office-supply stores. I bet it will go on sale at Target and the drugstores, too. Tissues seem to be on sale a lot, but autumn is a good time (think “cold and flu season stockup”).
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  8. The back-to-college industry leads to created desires and very cluttered dorm spaces. I wrote today about how some of my daughter’s dormmates had 3 refrigerators in a tiny double–one brought by each student and one that came with the room.

    At the end of the year, dumpsters are placed outside the dorms and students throw things directly from their windows into the dumpsters.

    I think the back-to-school loss leaders will be more expensive this year–as they were last year. Not so many freebies.


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