The Best Time for Back-to-School Shopping

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About 80 million American children – from preschool to college – will return to school in August or September, and between now and then, they will need to buy school supplies and clothes.

Retailers are hoping for even bigger sales this August than during the same month last year, when Americans spent $7.7 billion at family clothing stores and $2.4 billion at book stores — the best sales month of the year for books and the third best month for clothes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Retail analysts attribute much of those sales to back-to-school shopping, and although August is a good month to buy back-to-school supplies, it’s not the only month. And it’s usually not the best month.

(MORE: Why Kids Will Feel the Pinch on Back-to-School Duds)

Let’s start with July. Around the Fourth of July, many retailers start creating more space in their stores for back-to-school supplies, and consumers will see some sales. These sales, which typically last only a few days and include relatively few items, are held to lure shoppers who wouldn’t otherwise go to those stores in July. If any of those items are loss leaders that you know your children will need, it would have been a fine time to shop. Otherwise, you didn’t miss much.

More items are on sale in August, and many are loss leaders. Consumers can buy pencils for as little as a penny each, glue sticks for a dime, and notebooks and packs of paper for a quarter. Retailers know most families need – or want — to buy school supplies by the end of August, so if they can get you in their stores to buy those loss leaders, they assume you’ll also buy full-priced, high-profit-margin items, such as binders, graph paper and computer memory sticks.

August is the best month to buy the most expensive school supply: computers. Laptops, which all college students and many high school students need, generally are as inexpensive as they’re going to be in August, when competition is fierce among manufacturers and retailers.  Expect discounts of $100 or more and maybe even freebies, including printers and software.

With the exception of computers, September typically is the best month to buy school supplies. By September – and especially after Labor Day – stores want to get rid of school supplies that have yet to sell rather than store them or ship them back to warehouses, so they will price them to sell. Smart shoppers stock up in September and store the items to use next school year.

Bonus tip #1: Most states have one tax-free weekend in August, when consumers can buy back-to-school supplies and clothes and save anywhere from 3% to 7% in state sales taxes. (Meanwhile, five states – Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon – charge no state sales tax at all.) Before you shop, make sure you know the rules. For example, in Virginia, where the state sales tax rate is 5%, traditional school supplies, such as notebooks and pens, are tax exempt but only up to $20. Laptops and computers are not tax exempt. Clothing is, up to $100.

Bonus tip #2: During the spring and summer, when yard sales are abundant, look out for lightly used school supplies — and pay no more than 25% of what you’d pay in stores.

Long-time journalist Mark Di Vincenzo wrote the New York Times best-seller Buy Ketchup In May And Fly At Noon: A Guide To The Best Time To Buy This, Do That And Go There. This month he has released an app based on that book called WHEN. And an all-new, second edition on the best time to buy things, called Buy Shoes On Wednesday And Tweet At 4:00: More Of The Best Times To Buy This, Do That And Go There, will be released on Sept. 11.