On back-to-school weekend, bargains abound online

Traditional back-to-school shopping is under way, and this year the average family is expected to spend $606 on back-to-school supplies.

Seth Perlman/AP/File
Parents and students shop for back-to-school supplies at a Staples Office Supply store in Springfield, Ill., in this file photo.

This could be one of the biggest shopping weekends since last December.

As of Thursday, families had done less than half their back-to-school shopping going into this weekend, indicates a National Retail Federation survey. Almost one-third had not yet started.

As a result, retail analysts anticipate crowds at the malls looking for bargains on laptops, new blue jeans, and maybe the latest cellphone so that families can keep in touch with their children. Many shoppers will hit the Web looking for coupons or bargains. And, generally, if they look hard enough they will find sales.

“There is about the same number of deals as last year,” says Kevin Strawbridge, CEO of Dealtaker.com, Media General’s online social shopping and coupon site. “But this year there is not as much stuff in inventory, so when a promotion is gone the consumer may end up paying full price.”

But there are plenty of retailers offering sales this weekend. For example, on Mr. Strawbridge's site, there are Barnes & Noble promotions for 40 percent off Hop Zoo tote bags, 60 percent off girls’ New Balance athletic shoes at Joe’s New Balance Outlet, and a buy-one-get-one-free coupon for clothing at Aeropostale.

Dealtaker is far from alone in offering consumers deals this weekend. At Surfmyads.com, bargain hunters will find $100 to $519 off Dell Computer back-to-school systems, $25 to $125 off some HP laptops, and 15 percent off backpacks at The Children’s Place.

Andrea Woroch of SurfMyAds advises families to be sure to shop online so they can compare prices. It’s not hard, she says, to find promotions from large retailers such as Target, Macy’s, and Overstock.com.

She says there are sites, such as PromotionalCodes.com, that have organized the promotional codes (needed to get some bargains) for more than 10,000 stores. She advises consumers to stack coupons, because some retailers allow shoppers to use more than one promotional code on the same offer, such as a 25 percent off coupon in addition to a free shipping code.

Shoppers hitting Wal-Mart, America’s largest retailer, are likely to find plenty of deals as well. Scanning his own site, Strawbridge finds Wal-Mart offering Danskin sneakers for $10, Wrangler Jeans for $14 a pair, and a range of Texas Instruments calculators from $12. There are steep discounts on pens, pencils, and composition books.

In fact, some retail analysts expect good sales at Wal-Mart since the company’s quarterly earnings comparisons have been lower than some Wall Street expectations. As the Bentonville, Ark., retailer tries to reduce inventory, it may unload some merchandise at close to cost, says an analyst who did not want to be named.

Texas has picked this week for its 12th annual tax-free weekend, which is geared toward back-to-school shopping. Friday through Sunday, eligible school supplies under $100 are exempt from state sales tax – a break of about 8 percent.

These types of promotions may help some retailers get consumers in the door in what has been a challenging year. The National Retail Federation (NRF), a trade group, expects back-to-school spending, which is second only to the Christmas holidays, to increase this year compared with last year.

“But that’s not as huge a deal as you think,” says Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the NRF in Washington. “It’s easy to have good comparisons to last year, but what is encouraging is that consumers will be spending a little more than they did in 2008.”

The NRF is projecting the average family will spend $606.40 on its back-to-school purchases, compared with $594.24 in 2008.

“It’s a decent increase, but it’s mostly because the cost of electronics is up,” says Ms. Grannis.

Moreover, once Labor Day rolls around retailers will try to unload whatever is left in their summer inventory of apparel, patio furniture, and back-to-school items to make room for fall merchandise. “As they do, you can bet the malls will be crowded the next few weekends,” says Grannis.

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