Understand Your Finances
Where to find the best back to school deals
From bulk shopping stores to online retailers
This story is designed to inspire smart back to school shopping. It is presented by Chase Freedom.
When you need back-to-school supplies, a quick stop at the drugstore isn't going to cut it. For Sandra Shewchuk, a mother and sixth grade teacher in Burlington, Ontario, shopping in bulk is a big part of her back-to-school strategy.
"My husband calls it the $100 Club,'" says Shewchuk, referring to her husband's joke about how much money she spends at bulk stores. "But I'm in there all the time getting things for my classroom and my daughters."
According to Chain Store Age, retail sales during back-to-school shopping months (July and August) will account for 17 percent of total retail sales in 2017. Spending in these months is estimated to hit $857 billion, with e-commerce sales accounting for $74 billion.
Those are big numbers. But using a Cash Back rewards card like Chase Freedom allows shoppers to earn points and cash. Points never expire as long as your account is open. Down the road, these points can be converted into all kinds of perks with Chase Ultimate Rewards so it helps to be savvy at the checkout when making big purchases.
Randy Lee Allen, a senior lecturer on management at Cornell University says, "everyone these days has a great online presence, so check a few places, but maybe no more than three," adding: "Time is money, too."
Where bulk shopping shines
Despite all of the online options available, bulk stores account for a growing portion of back-to-school shopping. The National Bureau of Economic Research looked at Census Bureau data from 1992 to 2013, and found that the stores' industry grew from $40 billion to $420 billion. During the same time period, e-commerce grew from $35 billion to $348 billion, including catalog sales.
Buying reams of paper and boxes of pens and pencils in bulk gives you a good deal on a per-item basis: A box of ballpoint pens, for instance, could cost as little as 40 cents per pen at bulk stores.
"Pair up with another family and split up the giant boxes, as well as the cost of them," Allen says. “That way, you still get the wholesale savings as well as some variety."
These stores are also gaining momentum for their selection of electronics. Courtney Jespersen, retail analyst at NerdWallet.com, the millennial personal finance website and Chase partner, says bulk stores offer more than just a good price on a device.
"In addition to getting a laptop or a tablet, the electronics often come bundled with software and free subscriptions to programs such as Office 365," she says.
When to go retail
As much as she loves buying in bulk, Shewchuk, the Ontario mother, says she sticks to grocery stores for perishable items that could go bad during the school week. An eight-pack of lettuce may seem like a great idea, but unless you or your kids eat a lot of salad, or do a lot of juicing, it's probably going to go bad before you go through it.
Bulk stores often put bundles of supplies, like pens, scissors and tape all in one pack. Jespersen, of Nerdwallet, says that while the price per item may seem great, make sure you'll use everything in it. For instance, a bundle may have many novelty-colored pens and giant erasers, but if you know you'll never use them, it's better to go retail and select exactly what you need.
Beyond the first day of school
Back-to-school season is longer than just the first few weeks of school where you stock up on essentials and everyone's lunch box is still shiny.
Many bulk stores sell gift cards for movie tickets, spas and restaurants that help curb the holiday scramble for teachers' gifts. Some stores even offer a travel program to book cruise and luxury resort vacations. This can be especially beneficial for college students who seek an affordable spring break trip.
Overall, Jespersen says that no matter where you end up back-to-school shopping, apply the savvy shopping strategies that you'd use anywhere. "Compare prices but don't assume everything is a good deal just because you're getting a lot of it," she says.
Pauline Millard is a Chase News contributor.