Varsity-inspired cardigans. Preppy layers. Satin bomber jackets. There are plenty of fashion trends that experts say should help pique shoppers' interest for the back-to-school season. That could provide a sales bounce for retailers after last year's dearth of mainstream looks hurt business. The trick for shoppers: taking advantage of timing and tools to stay within a budget.
In the second most-important season for retailers behind the winter holidays, families with children from kindergarten to 12th grade plan to spend an average of $673.57 on clothing, accessories, electronics, shoes and school supplies. That's up nearly 7 percent from last year, according to the National Retail Federation. The group surveyed nearly 7,000 consumers from June 30 through July 6 about their plans.
Even though that survey showed signs that parents are less worried about the economy, stores are still pushing fat discounts. Some analysts say the back-to-school shopping time had a slow start, with people in no hurry to buy. Last-minute purchasing is a trend retailers have been seeing for back-to-school and the winter holidays for the past several years as mobile phones give shoppers more freedom and options. Political uncertainty is also weighing on them, says Ken Perkins, president of research firm Retail Metrics LLC.
"Our sense of things is that it's relatively quiet out there. There's no buildup," he said.
He believes that retailers will remain aggressive with discounts. Experts say when planning back-to-school buying, it's smart to research the new looks and take stock of what's already in the closet.
"Shoppers certainly have a little more money this year, but they still fundamentally want to be efficient," said Wendy Liebmann, CEO of the consulting group WSL Strategic Retail.
Here are seven ways to save money on back-to-school buying:
1. MIX NEW AND OLD ITEMS: If a growth spurt doesn't necessitate buying everything new, focus on a few items and take advantage of help from retailers. J.C. Penney's online site has a section called "Outfits You Love" that suggests ways to mix eight items to create two weeks of looks. "It's fashion math," says Liebmann. "It gives the feeling of lots of choices."
2. DO THE RESEARCH: It's easier than ever to check prices to make sure you're getting the best deal. One site, camelcamelcamel.com, monitors prices on millions of Amazon.com products and sends alerts when prices drop. Apps like RedLaser and PriceJump let shoppers scan an item to see if there's a better price online.
3. TIME YOUR BUYING: Back-to-school discounts have already started, but the trick is knowing the best time to grab certain items. For summer clothes like short-sleeve tops, wait until the last week of August and the first week of September to reap the biggest discounts, says Benjamin Glaser, editor of DealNews, a deal comparison website. For fall clothes, try to buy the first week of October. For jeans, he says to buy later in October for the largest savings. In years past, Glaser says he's seen brands like Lucky, Levi's and Nautica cut prices by 40 percent to 60 percent during October, with few restrictions.
4. BULK BUY THE BASICS: Stock up on items like socks and hoodies. Target's new Cat & Jack line for kids has offered $4 tank tops for girls online. Gap's Old Navy has up to 60 percent off with styles starting from $4. Old Navy is offering deep price cuts on hooded sweatshirts, selling for around $12, that Andres Dorronsoro, general manager at Old Navy merchandising, calls "extra cozy." Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has basic T-shirts for boys for just under $3 and leggings for girls for just under $4.
5. SHOP OFF-PRICE: Discounters like T.J. Maxx, Ross Stores and others are increasingly offering more items in season and are working to better curate them to the local market, says Ronen Lazar, CEO of Inturn, a technology company that works with off-price retailers to help liquidate merchandise. T.J. Maxx says that now through the beginning of September is the best time to catch trends for kids and teens, such as plaid and athletic-inspired clothing.
6. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF SALES TAX DAYS: Nearly 20 states offer sales-tax holidays, primarily in August, which target popular back-to-school items like clothing and accessories. Dates vary, and shoppers need to check the restrictions for each state, says Cardhub, a credit card comparison site, which posted tips on its blog. In Connecticut, for example, shoppers can get the 6.35 percent tax waived for clothing and footwear that has a taxable value of $100 or less from Aug. 21 to Aug. 27. Look at cardhub.com/edu/sales-tax-holidays or salestaxinstitute.com for more information.
7. LEVERAGE STORE REWARDS: Chose one store and do most of your shopping there to get the biggest benefit from its rewards program. The Kohl's programs offers $5 in rewards for every 100 points, or dollars spent. Shoppers can also sign up for programs like Plenti, which let them earn points in one store and use them in another with a single card. Earning 1,000 points will help you get at least $10 in savings at companies like Macy's and Rite Aid.