Free Pencils, 17¢ Notebooks: Crazy Back-to-School Sales Are Already Here

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It’s only the middle of July. School just ended a few weeks ago for some students. Yet, in a world in which the Christmas shopping seasons starts in September, we’re already in prime “back to school” season, according to retailers.

In fact, the shelves of chains such as Staples have been loaded with back-to-school supplies since before the Fourth of July. It’s never too early to give consumers yet another reason to spend, apparently.

Based on this past Sunday’s newspaper circulars and the specials now featured on many retailer websites, though, it seems like this week officially marks the launch of what stores hope will be a frenzy of back-to-school purchases.

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Retailers have their work cut out for themselves. According to the National Retail Federation, which also seems to jump the gun by offering its back-to-school shopping outlook before the end of June, parents say they will be shopping carefully and making special efforts to save on school supplies. This year, there are slight rises in the percentage of families who will do comparative shopping online (31% vs. 29.8% last year), use more coupons (38.7% vs. 36.9%), and cutting back on extracurricular activities or sports (14.3% vs. 10.2%).

To entice shoppers not only into spending, but into spending on back-to-school gear before many have even had a chance to take a summer vacation, stores are rolling out freebies and major markdowns. Many Staples locations, for instance, are offering writing pads and five-tab dividers for 1¢ apiece (with a $5 minimum purchase), 500-sheet reams of multipurpose paper for $1 (after a $5.99 rebate), and free four-packs of Bic mechanical pencils (after a $4.29 rebate).

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All of the above items are available for purchase only in a Staples store, not online. The point of these loss-leader goods, you see, is to get shoppers into the store, where they’ll browse the aisles and maybe, just maybe, buy some of the store’s many other items that aren’t on sale.

Likewise, the Sunday newspaper ad for Walmart in much of the country featured 15¢ two-pocket folders, 17¢ 70-sheet one-subject spiral notebooks, and 50¢ 100-sheet composition notebooks, but shoppers won’t find any of these prices at the Walmart website. The least expensive notebook listed at the retailer’s online back-to-school section is a 100-page spiral model for the “Rollback” price of $1.97 (97¢ extra for shipping).

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Some retailer’s back-to-school specials are available for online purchase, though. Office Depot, for instance, is selling two-pocket folders for 10¢ apiece that normally go for 49¢. That’s the online price, though there’s a limit of 10 at that price, and a customer must spend at least $50 in order to get free shipping.

Toys R Us, meanwhile, is trying to entice shoppers into spending by offering bundled packages: A free lunch kit (worth up to $9.99) is included in any backpack purchased at $12.99 or above, and various learning system bundles, which might include a child’s tablet, education games, and other/or other gadgets and gear, are being discounted by up to 40% off retail.

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Then again, none of these educational systems or games is actually necessary for students heading back to school. The easiest way for a parent to save on this line of back-to-school purchases is to just skip it entirely.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.