Back-to-school shopping 2017: Online vs. in-store, what’s the best, cheapest way to get everything on your list?

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Back-to-school shopping 2017: Online vs. in-store, what’s the best, cheapest way to get everything on your list?

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Lynne Sladky
No more sleeping in for kids or the adults in their lives as back-to-school time means getting everything on long, exacting supply lists. ! (AP Photo/File)

For parents and other adults, back-to-school supply shopping can be nearly as scary as that nightmare where you wind up reciting a poem in front of the whole class  wearing nothing but a pair of pink polka dot underpants.

Some schools’ lists are jawdroppingly long and precise. You might have to hit several different stores just to find the right set of file folders -- the ones that come with two pockets, not four, and in a rainbow of different colors. 

The other option -- buying online, including prepacked boxes of supplies from specialized web sites  -- is a quicker way to find everything on your list. But you could wind up paying more.

So what’s a dedicated No. 2 pencil-buyer to do? With metro Atlanta school systems heading back between July 31 and August 7,  we set out to compare and contrast the different buying options. And at the risk of sounding like every schoolkid ever, the project was harder than it sounds!

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After all, there’s no standardized list of supplies that covers every school or even just everyone  in a single grade. So we checked out a handful of web sites that specialize in school supplies; one of them, School-Pak, offers pre-packaged Elementary (Grades 1 - 5) and Middle School (Grades 6 - 8) boxes that we decided to use as a basic template for our overall shopping experiment (the site also offers a High School supply box, but we figured we’d leave it up to the big kids to fend for themselves!). Of course, everyone’s list is a bit different, but this provided a good starting point.

Then, to try out a range of other ways and places to supply hunt, we “shopped” for the same items “a la carte” --  at another specialty web site, School Tool Box, and in person at Atlanta area Walmart, Target and Kroger stores. The goal: Figuring out the easiest and cheapest way to cross off everything on on a back-to-school shopping list -- and whether the twain would ever meet.

Here’s what we learned after doing our homework: 

Option 1: Prepackaged supply kit purchased online 

What’s in the Elementary box:  Crayola Crayons 24 count box; 1 Pink Pearl eraser; 2 laminated 2-pocket folders in assorted colors; 1 large washable Glue Stick; Crayola Classic washable broad markers, 8 count box; 4 70-page wide rule notebooks in assorted colors; 6 #2 yellow pencils, sharpened; Prang brand colored pencils, 24 count box;  12-inch clear plastic standard & metric ruler; 1 pair scissors with pointed tip; 1 plastic 8-by-5 inch school box.

  Cost:  $27.79, plus additional shipping costs

What’s in the Middle School box: 1 plastic clear pencil case with binder holes; 1 large pink eraser; 5 laminated 2-pocket folders in assorted colors; 1 large washable glue stick; 1 yellow highlighter, broad chisel tip; 5 70-page wide rule spiral  notebooks in assorted colors; 1 Marble composition book, 100 pg ; 6 black ballpoint stick pens; 1 red ballpoint stick pen; 12 #2 yellow pencils, sharpened; Prang brand colored pencils, 12 count box; 6-inch clear protractor; 12-inch clear plastic standard & metric ruler 

   Cost: $29.36, plus additional shipping costs 

Pro: This is the easiest option by far, considering you don’t even have to decide what goes in the box; just which credit card to use. 

Con: It was the most expensive option we tried, especially once the $10.95 shipping address to an Atlanta home was tacked on.

Back to school shopping can be taxing for parents and the supply lists seem to grow every year. Here is a sample of one school’s requirements for new kindergartners.

Option 2: Items purchased individually online

What’s in the Elementary box: Same items as Option 1, with the exception of the plastic school box.

   Cost: $25.05, plus tax and shipping

What’s in the Middle School box: Same items as Option 1, with the exception of the plastic clear pencil case

   Cost: $24.65, plus tax and shipping

Pro: Items were easy to find using the site’s well-designed search function. And unlike in many stores (see below), it was possible to buy just one unit of certain items, like erasers and pens.

Con: Some items (pencils, markers) bring up a lot of choices, making it hard to always know the best deal. And if this site offers a “plastic school box” or a plastic clear pencil case, we couldn’t find them anywhere. It does offer a “canvas pencil pouch,” at an additional cost of $2.95.

    

In-store shopping can be a blur, but may be cheaper. (Photo: Caden Crawford/Flickr/Creative Commons) Caden Crawford/Flickr/Creative Commons

Option 3: Buying items in local stores 

   (Note: Based on in-store visits week of July 17 -21; prices may change as certain items go on or off sale, or if you can find smaller packages of items. Meanwhile, the cost totals for each store don’t include sales tax. The pros and cons, which are fairly similar no matter where you shop, are listed at the end of this section)

Where: Walmart

What’s in the Elementary shopping bag: Same as Option 1, with the exception of (you guessed it) the plastic school box.

   Cost: $17.27  

What’s in the Middle School shopping bag: Same items as Option 1, with the exception of the plastic clear pencil case

   Cost:  $24.69 

Where: Target      

What’s in the Elementary shopping bag: Same as Option 1, with the exception of the plastic school box.

      Cost: $13.78 for brand names used in Option 1; $12.93 when substituting Target brand for several items.

What’s in the Middle School shopping bag: Same items as Option 1, with the exception of the plastic clear pencil case

      Cost: $21.15

Where: Kroger

What’s in the Elementary shopping bag: Same as Option 1, with the exception of the plastic school box.

     Cost: $25.76 without loyalty card, $22.56 with card

What’s in the Middle School shopping bag: Same items as Option 1, with the exception of the plastic clear pencil case.

    Cost: $26.03 without loyalty card, $20.43 with card

      

All three in-store shopping experiences offered fairly similar pluses and minuses.

   Pro: Generally cheaper than buying online, especially factoring in shipping costs, and no waiting for a package to arrive at home.Being able to substitute store or other brands, use a store discount card or take advantage of in-store sales or special offers can lower costs even more.

   Con: Unless you want to drive to multiple stores, you’re largely at the mercy of what’s on the more space-limited (compared to web sites) or picked-over shelves. Also, it’s rare, if not impossible, to find a store that will sell just one red pen or glue stick, for example, or the exact number of pencils on each student’s list. You may have to pay more up front for your only option of, say, a 10-pack of pens, when you only need a few; but if you hold onto the surplus, you’ll save more in the long run. After all, next year’s back-to-school shopping season isn’t that far away!

                                     

                            

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