Back-to-school shopping tactics, ninja style

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

August 10, 2015

Back-to-school is the second-biggest shopping event of the year for retailers, but paying full retail prices in the typical "mall haul" is for suckers, say expert shoppers and cheapskates.

Americans will spend $68 billion during this year’s back-to-school season, including back-to-college, according to the National Retail Federation. That’s an average of $630 per family for school-age kids and $899 for families with college-bound students.

"They say back-to-school costs are about $600; I think that’s bogus," said Steve Economides, who with wife Annette heads "America’s cheapest family," operates and has written books including "The MoneySmart Family System."

"If you’re a smart shopper, you can do it for $60 to $75," he said.

We searched high and low for the best ninja tactics for back-to-school shoppers’ two main categories: school supplies and clothing. We’re betting you’ll find lots of advice you’ve never heard before. We’ve also included some hassle-free strategies for those who find that time is more valuable than saving a few bucks.


Whatever you do, don’t buy school supplies online if the goal is to save money. Pens, notebooks, folders and related supplies fall in one of the few product categories that is cheaper to buy in person.

Customer service firm StellaService reported that the average cost of a typical list of school supplies in a store was 41 percent less than buying them online, according to Consumer Reports.

And they’re not cheap. Consumers will spend a C-note, an average of $97.74, on school supplies, according to the retail federation. A survey commissioned by office supply store Staples found that price was the top consideration for 86 percent of parents when buying school supplies.

Fortunately, back-to-school is one season when retail prices are low just when consumers need them to be.

Ninja tactic 1: Inventory analysis. School shopping shouldn’t begin at the mall; it should start with a plan. You don’t know what to shop for until you know what you need. With supplies, that starts with the teacher’s list of required paraphernalia, often posted online and sometimes listed in major retail stores.

"I know it sounds boring, but inventory what you’ve already got," Annette Economides said. "It’s time to clean out the kids’ backpacks and desks at home." If you have multiple kids, assemble the school supplies and reallocate them to avoid overbuying and duplication.

Students don’t necessarily need new backpacks, binders and lunchboxes every year. What can be repurposed from previous years or older siblings? Parents who work in offices might reuse folders and binders that would otherwise be tossed by covering corporate logos.

Avoid listing fad items, like "Minions" backpacks that might not be cool a few months from now.

Ninja tactic 2: Ruthlessly target loss leaders. Loss leaders are items retailers sell below cost to entice customers into the store, hoping they’ll buy higher profit items too.

Super-shoppers know how to play that game.

Scour weekly circulars of office supply and chain drugstores for the best deals. You’re likely to find folders, highlighters and crayons for a quarter and penny deals on rulers and index cards. If the ad limits how many you buy, that’s a tipoff that it’s a great sale.

"The office supply stores are going to have the kick-butt loss leaders," Annette Economides said.

Josh Elledge, chief executive "angel" of coupon and savings site, said to hit those chain stores hard each week in August. "Don’t wait until the week before school," he said. "If you cherry-pick the best deals weekly and apply some high-value coupons, you’ll be well stocked up for school and your home office for the next year."

Jill Cataldo, a shopping expert who runs and teaches couponing classes locally, said she’s always prepared for back-to-school season.

"I keep my children’s lists with me when I go shopping, and I just purchase these low-priced items each week and try to cross off as much of their shopping lists as I can," she said. "This saves a lot of money, especially when some of the school lists are requiring larger quantities of supplies."

Keep an eye on ads from nontraditional stores for school supplies. Home center Menards, for example, recently advertised 10-packs of ballpoint pens and one-subject spiral notebooks completely free after rebate, with a limit of 10, Cataldo said.

"Getting 10 of each free covered all three of my kids’ needs for these items," she said.

Ninja tactic 3: Be social. Facebook pages of major retailers often promote sales. Sign up for retailer emails, perhaps to a secondary (and free) Gmail or Yahoo account so ads don’t clog your primary inbox.

Some retailers reward customers who like, follow, post, tag, pin, tweet and retweet, offering social media followers exclusive coupon codes and special savings, said Andrea Woroch of Kinoli, which manages money-saving websites. "Ultimately, it pays to be social," she said.

Ninja tactic 4: Compare on the fly. Standing in a store wondering if the listed price is a good one? Check your smartphone. Apps like ShopSavvy and Amazon Price Check use the phone’s camera to check the bar code to compile competing prices. If you’re shopping online, use the InvisibleHand browser extension to get price alerts in case what you’re shopping for is sold elsewhere for less, Woroch said.

Low-hassle tactic 1: Boxed supplies. Some schools, perhaps as a parent-teacher organization fundraiser, offer supply bundles that require no shopping and might cost about $50. Just realize, Cataldo said, you may be able to use loss-leader shopping to get the same things for about $10.

"It’s time versus money," Annette Economides said. "If you have less time and more money, go for it."

Low-hassle tactic 2: Exploit the price match. Avoid store hopping by taking advantage of the price-matching policies at stores like Staples, Wal-Mart and Target, which will match advertised prices on brand-name products. "You have a likelihood of being able to shop at only one store and still get the 19-cent folders," Steve Economides said.

Low-hassle tactic 3: Shop online. While online shopping isn’t the cheapest way to buy school supplies, it might be quicker than visiting stores. At least be sure to do a quick Internet search for free shipping offers. "Free shipping is not just a want of shoppers but an expectation," said Stacie Severs Nelson, client services and managing director of Prosper Insights, which supplies the National Retail Federation with survey data about back-to-school shopping.

Besides free shipping, you might find discount codes as well. Use your favorite search engine with keywords including the retailer’s name plus "coupon code." Or, for more reliable leads on coupon codes, search such aggregators as, and Some deal aggregators, like, highlight back-to-school bargains.

Bonus tip: No kids, no problem. If you have a home office — or just need to resupply the kitchen junk drawer with household pens and paper clips — back-to-school time is the best time to do it.

Families will spend even more on clothes than school supplies. About 93 percent of families will buy new apparel, spending an average of $218 on clothes and an additional $118 on new shoes, according to the retail federation.

Ninja tactic 1: Fake fashion show. As with school supplies, know what’s missing before you shop. Have your student put on a fashion show to figure out what fits, what doesn’t and what they need for school.

When it comes to wants versus needs, talk about the difference and what you’re willing to spend. That will cut down on drama and overspending at the store.

If younger children balk at hand-me-downs, rename the process. "First-grade clothes" sounds less like clothes that were handed down and more like the child was promoted.

Ninja tactic 2: Pillage pre-owned piles. "When it comes to clothing kids, I always recommend buying gently used wherever possible," Elledge said.

Buying secondhand is especially good for kids at the ends of the spectrum, from youngsters who quickly outgrow clothes to older kids who crave pricey brand names and can get more for their money used.

Shop at local thrift or consignment shops, or online at websites like, Woroch suggests. Garage sales and rummage sales are great for infant and toddler clothes, but more hassle than they’re worth to try to outfit school-age kids, Steve Economides said.

"We did thrift stores for everything except for socks, underwear and shoes," Steve Economides said of outfitting his own kids, adding that you can get name-brand jeans for $10 or $15.

Elledge said his favorite website for kids’ clothes is "Not only are the prices and selection great, they donate 40 percent of your purchase to schools," he said.

Ninja tactic 3: Slow your roll. You don’t need a child’s full school-year wardrobe on the first day of classes, when weather in most regions is too warm for back-to-school fall fashions anyway. By the time your child needs fall clothes, they’ll be on clearance.

Waiting also spreads out clothing spending, creating less of a sudden impact on your wallet.

Another benefit is not making a fashion faux pas. Waiting until several weeks into the school year allows teens to discover which fashions are — and are not — cool anymore, avoiding purchases of clothes that go unworn.

Ninja tactic 4: Buy shoes in the evening, or Wednesday. Go shoe shopping in the evening because children’s feet can swell half a size from morning, perhaps nudging them into a larger size that will last them longer. And Mark Di Vincenzo, author of "Buy Shoes on Wednesday and Tweet at 4" says if you’ll buy shoes online — only a good idea if you’re certain of shoe size — sales data show Wednesdays feature the best prices.

Low-hassle tactic 1: If your student is a teen, set a budget and let them do the hard work of shopping for clothes. They might just learn a few money lessons along the way.