NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- As you browse the back-to-school deals in the various weekly circulars, you're likely to find quite a few items for absolutely dirt cheap -- or free. In the current Staples circular, for instance, you can get 500 sheets of copy paper for $1, composition notebooks for 10 cents each, or a pack of pens for free after filling out an online rebate form.
Obviously Staples isn't making a profit at these prices -- these are what are known as loss-leaders, products on which a retailer takes a loss in order to turn a profit on other items. It's a simple strategy: They offer these dirt-cheap prices to get you in the store, because they know that once you're there, you're likely to buy a lot more than just free post-it notes and filler paper.
“The goal is to get you in the door by promoting the cheap stuff, so you'll then buy the more expensive stuff,” says Howard Schaffer, a veteran of Sears and the vice president of business development at online deal site Offers.com. “When you go in a store you always wind up getting a few extra things...parents get in crunch time and they say, 'Let's get it all done in one place, or in a couple places.'”
Parents, in other words, want a one-stop shop for back-to-school shopping -- and with only a couple of weeks left in the summer, time is definitely of the essence. A recent survey by the National Retail Federation, a retail industry trade group, found that 24% of Americans won't start their back-to-school shopping until there's a week or two left to go in summer vacation (so you won't be alone in your last-minute shopping). With that in mind, we decided to see how the major retailers differ and which you should visit if you've only got time for one stop.
To do so, we first gathered recommended supply lists from three different elementary and middle schools, allowing us to identify a few items you'll find on the typical school supply list: gel pens, flash drives, highlighters, scissors, graphing calculators and dry-erase markers. We then compared the prices for each item at five of the biggest retailers selling school supplies: Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Staples, Target and Office Max.
Whenever possible we tried to compare items of roughly equivalent quality. With gel pens, for instance, we went with dozen-count Uniball retractable pens; for scissors, we simply tried to find a name-brand to ensure that the pair will last the school year. In the case of flash drives, we've listed the price for the least-expensive drive sold by the retailer, with a minimum storage capacity of 8 GB. In all cases we steered clear of online-only sales items, though online items with free store pickup made the cut.
All prices were good this week, but please note that these price comparisons were made using weekly circulars (which can change after Saturday, August 18) and online pricing data from the Northeast region; regional pricing variations may mean that prices differ slightly in your area. Check your area stores and circulars for locally-accurate pricing information.
Here's how the retailers stacked up in our survey.
Gel pens: $19.49
Flash drive: $5.99 for a SanDisk 8 GB drive
Highlighters: $11.99 (Sharpie retractable, 8-pack)
Scissors: $7.49 (Westcott recycled scissors, 7 inches)
Graphing calculator (TI-84 Plus): $99.99
EXPO dry-erase markers: $6.49 (4-pack)
Deals on smaller school supplies abound in Staples' weekly ad this week. Composition books are ten cents apiece with a minimum purchase of $5, and if your kid doesn't insist on gel pens you can get a 7-pack of retractable ballpoint pens for free after an online rebate. The weekly ad also offers a coupon for $5 off total purchases over $50.
“Staples is the best place to get all your back-to-school shopping done in a hurry because we make it easy to shop with guaranteed savings with our Back to School Savings Pass, extreme deals throughout the season and technology deals for students,” says a company spokesperson.
Don't take the company's word for it, though. That Back to School Savings Pass is a $10 card you can purchase from Staples that allows you to save 15% across the board on school supplies through September 15. It should be noted, though, that the fine print excludes calculators, furniture, flash drives and other higher-priced items, so you'll need to take a look at your list to determine whether the pass is really worth it.
Gel pens: $22.99
Flash drive: $4.99 (Kingston 8 GB flash drive)
Highlighters: $11.29 (Sharpie retractable 8-pack)
Scissors: $6.79 (Westcott recycled scissors, 7 inches)
Graphing calculator (TI-84 Plus): $119.99
EXPO dry-erase markers: $5.49 (4-pack)
OfficeMax lost out due to the high price of its graphing calculators, though it also isn't helping its cause by charging more than the other retailers for gel pens. On the bright side, OfficeMax has the lowest-priced flash drives, and it's currently offering a printable coupon for $5 off purchases of $25 or more.
“To help back-to-school shopping dollars stretch further, we’re providing big deals on education essentials throughout the season including 25-cent, 50-cent and $1 value deals on an assortment of supplies that appear on every parent’s school shopping list,” adds a company spokesperson.
Gel pens: $19.94
Flash drive: $5.94 (Wintec FileMate 8 GB flash drive)
Highlighters: $8.88 (Sharpie retractable, 8-pack)
Scissors: $2.97 (Fiskars student scissors, 7 inches)
Graphing calculator (TI-84 Plus): $94
EXPO dry-erase markers: $7.97 (3-pack with eraser)
Wal-Mart beats the specialty office supply stores by undercutting them on the price of its graphing calculators. It also has the lowest-priced scissors of any retailer listed here, and lest there be any questions of quality, it should be noted that one of the school supply lists we got our hands on specifically recommends the Fiskars brand.
This week's ad also has one-subject notebooks for 17 cents each, and a company spokesperson notes that these are among a variety of ultra-cheap school supplies, with “more than 100 back-to-school items for teachers and students for less than 88 cents including pencil pouches, lunch totes, notebooks, gel pens, dry erase boards and more.”
And if you (or your kid) misplaced that school supplies list, Wal-Mart has introduced its Classrooms by Wal-Mart program, which allows teachers to post their supply lists on Wal-Mart's website for easy access by students and parents. According to a spokesperson, 55,000 lists have been uploaded to the site.
Gel pens: $17.98
Flash drive: $6.99 (Dane 8 GB flash drive)
Highlighters: $13.80 (Sharpie retractable 8-pack)
Scissors: $4.14 (Scotch 8-inch scissors)
Graphing calculator (TI-84 Plus): $93.99
EXPO dry-erase markers: $2.50 (4-pack)
Target is in a virtual dead heat with Wal-Mart here, due in part to matching it on graphing calculators. The $2.50 dry erase markers are found in this week's circular, which also has a four-pack of Scotch tape at the same price.
Shoppers can save even more by taking advantage of online and in-store coupons.
“We are offering more online coupons for back-to-school items at Target.com to help guests stay on budget and save on everything on their lists,” says a company spokesperson. “Additionally, Target’s direct mail catalog includes more than $25 worth of coupons, as well as additional coupons for back-to-school necessities online.”
Gel pens: $19.99
Flash drive: $5.99 (Maxell 8 GB flash drive)
Highlighters: $6.10 (Sharpie Accent, two 4-packs)
Scissors: $6.23 (Westcott student scissors, 7 inches)
Graphing calculator (TI-84 Plus): $111.99
EXPO dry-erase markers: $4.24 (4-pack)
K-Mart is hurt here by the cost of its graphing calculators, and while it wins the highlighter category, that's on a bit of a technicality -- it's the only retailer without retractable highlighters, so we went with the lower-priced standard highlighters.
“Kmart is the one stop shop for all back to school shopping this year because it offers consumers the most value and choice in one place: everything from a huge variety of brand apparel to back to school supplies, to payment options and special perks,” Kmart spokesperson Andy Stein tell us. He adds that if you spend more than $100 in a visit, you can get a free flu shot through August 18.
Based purely on price, Target and Wal-Mart won in this Northeast survey, but that obviously makes the competition contingent on where you are buying, and more so, a bit contingent on what you're buying – if you don't need a graphing calculator, for instance, their advantage over the other retailers is diminished. And if you're mainly looking for smaller supplies like pens and paper, Staples makes a strong case with its weekly ad.
With that said, most back-to-school shoppers aren't strictly looking for pens, paper and calculators -- they're also looking for things like clothes and backpacks, and in the case of college-bound students, they're also in the market for furniture. If that's the case for you, then once again a big discount retailer like Wal-Mart or Target will likely be your best bet.
It will probably come as no surprise, then, that that's exactly where most Americans prefer to do their shopping. According to that NRF survey, 67% of shoppers will visit discount stores for their back-to-school shopping, compared with just 42% who say they'll be visiting a specialty office supply store. While stores like Staples are making a strong play with 10-cent notebooks and free pens, it's evidently hard to beat a giant store that's got everything you need in one place.
--By Matt Brownell