How to go back-to-school shopping when you're unsure what school will look like

How to handle back-to-school shopping during the coronavirus pandemic, when you're unsure what the school year will look like and what items your children may need.


The coronavirus pandemic is changing how schools operate this year, and many consumers' shopping lists have also changed. Overall, shoppers with kids in elementary school through high school expect to spend more on school supplies this year: about $790 per household. Last year, they planned to spend about $697, according to the National Retail Federation.

Some of the rising spending stems from technology needed for remote or hybrid learning. Almost two-thirds, 63%, of shoppers plan to buy a laptop this year, up 54% from last year.

Although needs might have changed, sales look similar to previous years, says Kristin McGrath, shopping expert at Offers.com. "Even though school looks different this year, we're still seeing roughly the same categories discounted as we did in years past," she says. 

Here's how to "back-to-school" shop when you're unsure what school will look like. 

Shop your home first 

Before loading up your in-person or virtual cart, look around your own home for barely used notebooks and leftover pens and pencils, suggests consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. That can help you cut your shopping list and save money.

"I spent time going through all the supplies we already have at home to see what we could use for this coming school year and found crayons and markers that we could make a set with, and am reusing folders and notebooks," she says. "All these supplies will do just fine for this start of the school year. Plus, if they're learning from home, your kids don't have to worry about their peers seeing them use their old stuff."

Look for clothing deals, even if in-person school isn't resuming

"Even if it seems odd to shop for back-to-school clothing when your child will be learning at home, remember that kids grow," McGrath says. "Back-to-school clothing deals can help you snag good prices on staples like shoes and jackets — stuff your kids will need regardless of where they are." 

August tends to be a great month for deals on kids clothes, according to DealNews.com. At Target, for example, you can save $5 when you spend $25, or $10 when you spend $40 on kids' clothing this week. At Kohl's you can get $10 off $50, either online or in stores, when buying "select" kids', juniors', and young men's clothing, and accessories or backpacks, now until August 23.

Back-to-school clothing deals can help you snag good prices on staples like shoes and jackets — stuff your kids will need regardless of where they are.
Kristin McGrath
Shopping expert at Offers.com

Take advantage of discounts that fit your child's schedule

Look for deals that fit your child's school plan, whether they are expected to take class in-person, online, or a hybrid of the two. "Face masks and headphones are two newer items that retailers are putting front and center in their back-to-school sales this year," McGrath says. 

Target, Kohl's, and Walmart are all selling face masks for children. Many are being sold in multipacks and are included in storewide discounts. For example, a two-pack of Target's Cat & Jack reusable face masks are being sold for $4 and can be included in the storewide discounts of $5 off for $25 spent or $10 of $40 spent. 

"A lot of retailers' back-to-school deals are pushing headphones this year, because so many kids will be sharing learning space with their siblings and parents this fall," McGrath adds. 

For example, at Best Buy, Air Pods are $20 off and Bose-SoundLink wireless around-ear headphones are $70 off.

How to make a face mask using stuff around your home

Video by Jason Armesto

Shop online

Many big retailers offer their in-store sales online, too, and have online-only deals. Some stores also have free shipping if you spend a certain amount, and many sweeten those offers for back-to-school sales.

Shopping online can also prevent you and your family from having to enter a shop that might be packed. 

"If you're in a hurry or worried your items won't ship in time, take advantage of stores' curbside pickup options," McGrath says. "That way you can order backpacks, notebooks, pens, whatever you need, and get them the same day without having to deal with crowds inside stores." 

Buy used electronics 

If you too need to buy your kid a laptop this year, remember that you don't need to buy them a brand new one. Shop around Best Buy's "open box" section, Woroch suggests, which sells lightly used, discounted electronics. If you're looking to buy a laptop, Best Buy has plenty of secondhand options that are heavily discounted.

A brand new HP Pavilion 14-inch touchscreen laptop, for example, is $749.99, but a gently used one is $572.99. 

Gazelle and Decluttr are also trusted sources from which you can buy used electronics

Shop on tax-free weekends

Some states have already hosted their sales-tax holidays, but if you live in Maryland, Connecticut, or Massachusetts, you can still take advantage of upcoming tax-free days. In Maryland, for example, the 6% sales tax is waived on clothing and footwear.

These discounts will come in especially handy if you stack them with back-to-school sales.

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