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Ten tips for back-to-school shoppers

Think positive and snag some savings. By Teri Goldberg

It’s back-to-school season and the battles are about to begin. Kids want what’s hot despite the cost. Parents need to stay within a budget. This year, instead of gearing up for the usual confrontations, see the experience as a chance to bond with your kids — remember Norman Vincent Peales’ “The Power of Positive Thinking”? You never know, by the end of the exercise, your kids may think you’re dope — as in cool, hip — rather than a dope.

So before you head out to the mall or log on to cyber shop, 1. Do your homework. That is, parents should take the time to figure out what’s hot and what’s not. Watch MTV, read teen magazines if necessary. Stuff magazine is a popular choice these days. It wouldn’t hurt to know what interests your kids anyway — makes for lively conversation to and from the mall, and perhaps even throughout the year. The point: Educated consumers are better equipped to negotiate.

Next step is to 2. Take stock. After and only after you’ve done your homework, set aside some time to review what’s in your kids’ closets. Sort clothes and shoes into categories--what fits, what doesn’t, what’s dated and what’s not—and then 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 come back in style.

Like any other shopping expedition, 3. Make a list and check it twice.

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 — track jackets for him and her
  3. optional — the latest iPod because the kid down the block has one.

4. Comparison shop online. Save time in the mall. Let your mouse do the walking. To isolate the best prices, many consumers use price-comparison Web sites or shopping bots, short for robots, such as, and

From my experience, bots generate as about as many irrelevant results as “traditional” search engines, such as Google or Google’s shopping search engine Froogle.

For example, a search for “number two pencils” at yielded 89 results. Among the results were links to computer programs, pictures of famous baseball players, and backpacks — makes some sense, at least backpacks may contain pencils. A Google search generated 9,590 hits but the third link led me to Dixon Ticonderoga, home of the classic yellow number two pencil. Do what works for you.

5. Keep shopping outings short. 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. In the long run, shorter shopping trips make for smarter shopping.

6a. Buy generic or office-supply store brands. Generic goods differ little from brand names in quality but vary significantly in price. For example, a dozen Dixon Ticonderogo pencils sell for $1.69 at Staples compared to a 12-pack of the store brand for 85 cents.

6b. Buy in bulk. The savings are not huge but a penny saved is a penny earned, or so it is said. For example, a dozen Staples pencils cost 85 cents, four dozen costs $2.24 and six dozen sells for $2.94. Per pencil that amounts to about 7 cents, 5 cents and 4 cents per pencil, respectively.

And what do you do with all these pencils or any other supplies you buy in bulk? One creative solution is to 6c. Shop with a friend. That is, join forces with other parents, compile a list and then divide up the goods. Many schools welcome donations of extra school supplies. Save the receipt and take the donation as a tax deduction.

7. Use your credit card and build up rewards. Check to see if your credit card company has any special deals or double reward periods for the back-to-school season.

8. Take advantage of special offers. There may not be as many letters as Harry Potter received when he was invited to spend his first year at Hogwart’s but now is the time retailers ratchet up the distribution of sale flyers and post specials on the Web. Look for sales on items on your list but don’t be swayed simply because an item is on sale. Most promotions are designed to lure you into the store to buy items not on your list.

9. Don’t blow your entire budget now. Save some of your back-to-school budget for markdowns later. 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?

If despite your good intentions, this year’s back-to-school shopping was not the bonding experience you hoped it would be, consider picking up a copy of “The Power of Positive Thinking” or Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” for next year.