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Shop smart this back-to-school season

Ten tips to stay sane, while snagging some savings. By Terry Goldberg

Kids love buying cool new stuff for school. Parents just want to get the goods without conflict and within a budget. In the long run, any successful relationship is about compromise, no? So this season, put negotiation at the top of your list. And then head out into the mall or start shopping online armed with a few survival and savings tips.

First, how much are consumers expected to dish out this year? Families with school-aged children are expected to spend an average of $483.28, up 7.2 percent from last year, according to a survey conducted by BIGresearch for the National Retail Federation. Nationally that totals about $14.8 billion just for students in elementary school through high school. The breakdown is as follows: $219.46 on clothing, $89.72 on shoes, $73.06 on school supplies and $101.03 on electronics and computer-related equipment.

Now, the rules:

1. Negotiate, arbitrate, strike a balance and 2. Involve your kids in the process are closely intertwined. “As early as age three, kids have a clear vision of what they want to wear,” says Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst at sales and marketing research company The NPD Group. So don’t fight it. Kids know what they want. Listen to what they have to say. You know how much you have or want to spend. Discuss, cajole, compromise. Do whatever you can to keep the peace.

The first tangible step in any shopping expedition is: 3. Take an inventory of what you have and make a list. Make a special appointment with your kids to review what’s in their closets and drawers. Sort out what fits, what doesn’t, what’s dated, what’s not and distribute accordingly. Give hand-me-downs to other siblings or charity. Move items that are not-hot-but-fit to the back of the closet — you never know when it could be back in style. (I have a hot pink and brown flowered, crocheted poncho at the back of my closet. Guess what? Ponchos are back in a big way this season. See “Hot, hip back-to-school fashions.”)

Then make a shopping list together. The operative word here is together. Divide the list into three categories: 1. actual needs — new sneakers because old ones do not fit; 2. must-haves — a few trendy items to start off the school year — miniskirt for her, cool T-shirts for him; and 3. optional — the latest iPod because the kid down the block has one. Use those negotiation skills now to sort out which items fall into which category to avoid conflicts later.

4. Have a backup strategy for potential in-store conflicts. Agree to disagree and that any conflicts have to be resolved on neutral territory. A store, a crowded coffee shop, the middle of the mall is not neutral territory. Take a short walk in a nearby park. Talk the matter over back at home. If it’s so hot, it’s not the last one on the shelf (despite what all those women’s magazines say). If it is really the very last one on the shelf, set a strategy before hand for that situation as well — flip a coin?

5. Limit shopping outings to a few hours at a time. Forget the one-day back-to-school shopping spree of the past. Even the most experienced shoppers lose perspective after a few hours. Ever notice how the last few items you drag to the cash register are the ones you really don’t need? Everything looks like a deal at the end of the day. On shorter shopping trips, a clearer head will lead to fewer conflicts and more savings.

6. Use your credit card to build up rewards. Warning: This rule only applies to reward-card holders that pay off their credit card bills in full each month. That is, consumers who pay off their bills over several months will end up paying more in interest than they gain in rewards. (To learn more about credit card options, see “How to pick the right credit card.” )

This back-to-school season, several retailers have teamed up with Bank One to offer special rewards for its United Mileage Plus card holders on purchases made through Sept. 30, 2004. During this time, card holders who pay with their United Mileage Plus will receive four miles for every dollar at o and two miles for every dollar at llbean.com, ikea.com and bedbathandbeyond.com.

Check to see if your credit card company has any special deals for the back-to-school season.

7a. Buy school supplies in bulk. It’s just so much cheaper.Case in point:on Tues. Aug. 10, a 72-pack of number two Staples brand pencils cost $2.94, compared to a dozen number two Dixon Ticonderogo pencils for $1.79. The difference: the Staples pencil cost 4 cents each; the Dixon Ticonderogo runs 21 cents a pencil. Point made.

Now what do you do with all these pencils or any other supplies you buy in bulk? One creative solution is “shop with a friend.” That is, join forces with other parents, compile a list and then divide up the goods.

Most schools also will welcome donations of extra school supplies. Save the receipt and take the donation as a tax deduction.

7b. Buy generic or office-supply store brands. Fortunately the brand-name craze hasn’t hit the office supply sector of the economy yet. See example above.

8. Take advantage of special offers but read the fine print. Now is the season for retailers to send out sale flyers and post specials on the Web. Read the small print before you head for the check-out counter. For example, target.com advertises a “FREE SHIPPING for back-to-school essentials” on its homepage. A closer look at the offer reveals that different products have different “free shipping” deadlines. Free shipping was available for futons through Aug. 14 but for a Serta mattress through Aug. 28, 2004.

Different products within the same category also have different shipping offers. So there’s free shipping for a Michael Graves frosted wall clock, priced at $19.99, but not for the French Country wall clock, also $19.99. Go figure.

9. Don’t blow your entire budget now. Save some of the budget for markdowns later but more importantly, set aside some funds for potential fashion crisis. Here’s one scenario. You bought the plaid miniskirt. The first day of school “everyone” is wearing the ruffle miniskirt. Wait a few days. But it may be time to make a trip back to the mall to pick up a ruffle miniskirt. Some times, it’s better to spend a few extra bucks just to “fit in” than confront an adolescent crisis head on.

10. Avoid the mall entirely and consider a cyber shopping season. Even if you have to pay shipping, spontaneous purchases are much more likely at mall. And then there’s lunch, snacks and coffee breaks. Latte, anyone?