The best, cheapest way to buy everything on your back-to-school list

<p>School buses. File photo. (Photo: AtelierKS/Pixabay/Creative Commons: https://pixabay.com/en/service/terms/#usage)</p>

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<p>School buses. File photo. (Photo: AtelierKS/Pixabay/Creative Commons: https://pixabay.com/en/service/terms/#usage)</p>

If you’re a parent, the start of another school year brings only one prospect more frightening than having to rouse your kids out of bed before noon:

Getting everything on their school supply lists.

Some schools’ lists are jawdroppingly long and precise. You might have to hit several different places just to find the right composition book -- the one with 100 pages, not 80, and it may or may not have to be wide-ruled.

The other option -- buying online, including prepacked boxes of supplies from specialized web sites  -- can be a more surefire way of finding everything on your list. But you could wind up paying more, or having to wait awhile for delivery.

So what's a dedicated glue stick gumshoe to do? With a couple of metro Atlanta school systems starting as early as July 30 (sorry, Henry and Rockdale county kids) and the remainder rolling out through Aug. 8, we set out to compare and contrast the different buying options.

You remember that high school Algebra problem that started, “If a train leaves the station at .... ?” This experiment was kind of like that.

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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. Parents can order a prepacked box or shop on their own.

Because there's no one standardized list of supplies that covers every school or even just a single grade, we began our assignment with a couple 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.

Of course, every school’s list is a bit different, but this provided a good  standardized starting point (School-Pak  also offers a High School supply box, but since shopping for school supplies is the perfect excuse for teens to meet their friends outside home, we’re letting them fend for themselves).

Then, to try out a range of other ways and places to fill out those lists, we "shopped" for the same items "a la carte" --  at another specialty web site, School Tool Box, and at Walmart, Target and Office Depot. For the latter three, we started online and selected each chain's store location that's closest to the AJC's Dunwoody office. We checked cost and availability of each item, weighing delivery and going into the store ourselves to pick up the items.

The overall goal of this particularly confounding Algebra problem: Arriving at the easiest and cheapest formula for crossing off everything on a back-to-school shopping list -- and figuring out whether the twain would ever meet.

Here’s what we learned from doing our homework:

Option 1: Prepackaged supply kit purchased online

Where: www.schoolpak.com

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. You can also build your own “kit” of supplies based on what’s on your student’s list.

Con: It was the most expensive option we tried, especially once the cost of shipping to an Atlanta home, soon, was tacked on. And it’s clearly popular: The elementary kit is currently out of stock.

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ajc.com

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Option 2: Items purchased individually online from another school supply site

Where: www.schooltoolbox.com

What’s in the Elementary box: Same items as Option 1

Cost: $30.64, plus tax and shipping

What’s in the Middle School box: Same items as Option 1

Cost: $29.75, plus tax and shipping

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

Con: A few items, notably notebooks and folders, cost more than the deals available at big box stores (see below); also, it said to allow up to 10 days for processing an order before shipping of the complete list of items from Option 1

Option 3: Items purchased from three large chain retailers

(Note: Based on prices July 26-27; prices and availability may change as certain items go on or off sale and demand changes; We started out “shopping” online with an eye towards being able to find items at a nearby store. 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, although the plastic school (supply) box wasn’t available in-store and had to be ordered online.

Cost: $29.28

What’s in the Middle School shopping bag: Same items as Option 1, although the plastic clear pencil case either had to be shipped to home or a store for pickup later next week.

Cost:  $35.45

Explorewww.walmart.com

Where: Target

What’s in the Elementary shopping bag: Same as Option 1, except Crayola colored pencils had to be substituted for Prang.

Cost: $24.06

What’s in the Middle School shopping bag: Same items as Option 1, with the exception of the colored pencil substitution and that darned plastic clear pencil case (again, it required shipping to home or a store for pickup later next week).

Cost: $38.29

Explorewww.target.com

Where: Office Depot

What’s in the Elementary shopping bag: Same items as Option 1.

Cost: $30.18, not including delivery. About half the items were available for same day pick-up in a nearby store; delivery of the rest takes 1-3 days, although orders of $35 and over get free delivery.

What’s in the Middle School shopping bag: Same items as Option 1.

Cost: $41.29 (delivery would be free on this full list of items). All but four items on the list were available for same-day pickup in a nearby store.

Explorewww.officedepot.com

All three shopping experiences offered fairly similar pluses and minuses.

Pros: A convenient blend of online and in-store shopping, something that’s especially useful for procrastinators or anyone with a particularly, uh, rigid school shopping list that doesn’t allow for any deviation. All three retail chains’ sites not only allow you to search for items, they’ll also tell you if they’re available for pickup at nearby stores and when. You can order anything else (or everything, if you prefer) delivered.

Cons: Delivery takes time and involves additional cost in most cases. And if you want to pick up all or most items in stores, that means -- shudder! -- driving in Atlanta traffic. Finally, certain items may only be sold in larger packages, which can drive up the cost of, say, the one glue stick or red pen on your child's list. Then again, you can save the extras and be ahead of the game for the next school year.