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Posted: July 28, 2011

Back-to-school sales require strategic shopping

By Lauren Davidson

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta, GA —

Every autumn, the list gets longer:
“Did he need college-ruled notebook paper last year?”
“I don’t remember buying her five binders.”
“A T-I-80-WHAT?”
The school supply list, it seems, grows more than your children do each year. And while your son might clamor for the Transformers pencil box, you’re determined to keep this shopping trip for necessities under control (for the most part, anyway).
That’s why, armed with the Inman Middle School 6th grade supply list, I drove to six different metro Atlanta retailers, determined to identify the cheapest places to buy supplies and the strategies most effective for back-to-school shopping. Here’s what I discovered:
Strategy: Don’t be persuaded by the door-buster prices on, say, notebook paper, which should be relatively cheap anywhere you go. Instead, one strategy is to identify the items on your list that could cost the most, and then choose a retailer based on the price of that item. For example, one-inch binders ranged from 60 cents at Walmart to $4.59 at Publix, and if your kid needs 3 to 8 of these, they could destroy your budget at the grocer.
A second strategy is to identify the items most difficult to find — in my case a non-spiral, quad-rule composition notebook was only available at three of the six stores. Then visit the store that carries the rarer items first, because you’ll have to make that trip regardless.
Timing: Office Depot’s circular included rulers, ballpoint pens and college rule paper for 25 cents, but the rulers and pens were gone by the time I got there. Go shopping ASAP for a chance to snag these prices, and hit up retailers in the morning when goods will be freshly stocked and organized.
Selection: Walmart was very organized, had an incredible supply, and was obviously prepared for the back-to-school rush. Plus, the display seemed more compact and easier to navigate than those at the large office supply stores I visited. But Target, OfficeMax and Office Depot were the only stores that had everything on my list.
Also, for you green families, recycled notebook paper wasn’t hard to spot at both Kroger and Office Depot.
Assistance: I consider myself a capable shopper, but I was a bit overwhelmed at how many choices some stores offer. At OfficeMax, I had to ask for help looking for the cheap binders, which weren’t with the other school supplies. And don’t be reticent about asking for the cheapest item. The first quad-rule composition book I found at Office Depot was $7.29, a whopping $4.80 more than the less-expensive version a salesperson located for me.
Bulk: Buying in bulk could be cheaper — but don’t assume so. The packs of 72 pencils for $5.99 Office Depot offered still cost more per pencil than the 10- or 12-packs at Walmart or Kroger. So bring a calculator if you want to maximize your savings. Also, combo packs (like 14 Dixon pencils, more erasers than you can imagine plus a pencil sharpener at Publix for $2.99) might net you some change, depending on your needs.
Ifs and buts: I cannot promise any prices mentioned will be valid by the time you get to the store, as sales can change daily. Individual stores vary and your list can differ drastically, depending on how old your kids are.
And sometimes — just sometimes – you’ll probably treat your kids to a higher-priced item. Because your daughter, OMG, will, like, die if she doesn’t walk into class with that $5 “Glee” binder.

What I shopped for

  • 5 dividers
  • Notebook paper
  • 1-inch binder (3)
  • Black/blue pens
  • Ruler
  • Pencils
  • Graph paper
  • Dry erase marker
  • Composition notebook (2)
  • Highlighters
  • Pencil sharpener
  • Grid composition book, not spiral-bound
  • Colored pencils
  • At least 200 index cards (preferably on spiral or rings)
  • *Excludes independent reading book

Price totals from each store: (May vary by location)

  • Walmart: $19.16*
  • Target: $20.43
  • Kroger: $25.31* **
  • Publix: $34.33*
  • OfficeMax: $36.87
  • Office Depot: $38.64
  • *Missing one or more items on list; total reflects only items available
  • **With Kroger Plus Card
  • Door-busters I found:
  • Kroger: 19-cent pen 12-packs, 39-cent rulers, 50-cent pencil sharpeners
  • Office Depot: 25-cent notebook paper
  • OfficeMax: $1 quad-rule composition books
  • Target: 50-cent pencil 10-packs, 50-cent highlighter 2-packs, 75-cent colored pencils
  • Walmart: 60-cent 1-inch binders, 20-cent composition notebooks

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