Back to school

Your back-to-school shopping cheat sheet: How to get the best in-store deals

Aug. 15, 2014 at 7:03 PM ET

Back to school shopping tips
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Some school districts have been back in session for weeks, while others won't start till after Labor Day. This year, the International Council of Shopping Centers reports 90 percent of shoppers will be lured out of the house and into physical stores by the promise of money-saving sales. Here are a few strategies from the experts to try to save money on all those pencils and Trapper Keepers.

Use comparison shopping apps 
Plenty of stores will try to get your attention with "loss leaders" — items with steep discounts designed to draw you into the store — then charge you more for related items. If you’re prepared with a list of the things you must have and their prices, you can take advantage of deeply discounted items and resist more expensive impulse buys. 

Favado helps you compare in-store prices and make shopping lists. “It’s free and gives you access to thousands of store ads from across the country,” says Sarah Roe of MoneySavingQueen.com. “You can see advertised and even unadvertised sales for groceries and back-to-school deals.” Another app,  SaleSorter, can also help you find the best deals in your area. 

If you do suspect an item is priced too high, download the Shop Savvy Barcode Scanner app to find a better deal on the same item. “Use it to scan an item's barcode and it will pull up the item's price at online retailers and local merchants as well,” says Michelle Madhok, CEO of SheFinds Media. Similarly, Amazon’s free Price Check app, available for iPhone and Android, will allow you to search for the prices of scanned items on Amazon.com. 

Ask stores if they have their own app. For Target shoppers, the new Cartwheel app provides a list of coupons for items throughout the store. Download the offers you want, and scan the coupons from your phone when you get to the register. 

Know when clothes will be marked down
While it makes sense to stock up on school supplies for the first week, it’s a good idea to wait on clothes. “If your child wants a new outfit for the first day, shop the summer selection, which will likely be heavily reduced during this time,” says Madhok. “Then towards then end of September and early October, start shopping for fall items. By this time they will likely be marked down.”

Even school uniforms tend to go on sale by October, so buy only the minimum now and wait to stock up later in the year. 

You can also plan to shop during the times that stores are most likely to have markdowns. For example, Kohl's marks items down on the second and fourth Saturday of each month.

Ask about a store’s price matching policy
Store policies vary, but many retailers will honor a lower price offered by a competitor, and some may even allow you to price-match using a smartphone right on the spot. Staples, for example, claims it is offering the lowest prices on back-to-school items, all season long. If there’s any doubt, they back it up with a 110 percent price match guarantee. That means if you can find an item priced for less, Staples will give you the difference plus 10 percent. Retail giant Wal-Mart will match lower prices that you find at other stores. “If you happen to have a coupon, you can combine the coupon with the price match for double the savings,” Pavini says.  

Even if you find the lower price after you’ve made your purchases, Wal-Mart’s Savings Catcher site will make good on its price match promise. Once you enter your receipt number, the site scans ads in your area. If there’s a lower advertised price, you get a gift card for the difference. 

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Search for student deals before you shop 
“For example, Apple offers a $100 gift card when students buy a Mac for college and Dell is giving away free tablets when students buy certain laptops and desktop computers,” says Jeanette Pavini of coupons.com.

Take advantage of future markdowns
Depending on your retailer’s price adjustment policy, you may be able to save on items that are marked down after you buy them. “At some stores, if you make a purchase and the items go down in price within a certain period of time (typically 14 days) you can bring back your receipt and get a refund for the difference in price,” Pavini says. The savings can be most significant when shopping for clothes. Whenever you buy clothes, Pavini recommends marking on your calendar the last day you are eligible for a price adjustment if the items go down in price. 

Be aware of return and price adjustment policies wherever you shop. “If you go over budget,” Madhok says, “you'll want the option to return items you don't need or get some money back if the store (or another store) marks down an item after you purchased it.”

This story was originally published on Aug. 8.

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