For retailers looking to get the word out about back-to-school deals, their first stop is increasingly Twitter. They host giveaways, distribute coupons and connect with customers through tweets. As a result, the Twittersphere is also one of the best destinations for moms and dads (and teens) hunting for pencils, computers and new clothes.
On Old Navy's Twitter page (@OldNavy), followers learned about the company's sweepstakes to win a trip to Los Angeles and a $1,000 shopping spree. Over at @Gymboree, the children's clothing retailer, Twitter followers get news about the latest 40 percent markdowns as well as the chance to win a $75 gift card. Three-ring binder inventor Wilson Jones (@WilsonJonesUS) is giving away an iPod Shuffle on Twitter and Facebook. Target (@Target) is giving away up to $5 million to schools with the help of Facebook and Twitter (customers vote on which ones).
Those deals, says personal finance expert Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, are not just about saving money. She says retailers use the back-to-school season to build their social media audiences, too. "Everybody wants to better connect with and be liked by their consumers, so what you're seeing is a lot of them doing contests or offering online gimmicks. It's not just about sales, it's the social currency they're developing," she says.
Parents are looking for more than just the best deals, too. They want to make sure their kids are well-prepared for the school year. "Back-to-school spending is a very needs-driven event," says Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. "You can't send your child to school with jeans that don't fit." At the same time, she says, the average parent is still striving to be frugal. NRF's 2013 survey found that families with school-age kids will spend about $634 on clothes and school supplies, a decrease of about $50 compared to last year.
Another challenge this year is that teachers are increasingly looking to parents to help soften the blow of some of the recent education budget cuts. According to a survey from RetailMeNot.com, the vast majority of parents said at least a portion of their back-to-school purchases this year are a result of trimmed school budgets. They are buying essential items, such as paper or cleaning supplies, for the classroom, which used to be supplied by the school. "Schools are giving them longer lists than they're accustomed to," says RetailMeNot.com's senior editor Trae Bodge.
In addition to following retailers on Twitter and Facebook for the best deals, shopping experts recommend the following strategies for surviving back-to-school season:
Ask your kids what they want -- but don't always listen. Retailers are making an effort to get the attention of kids themselves, Grannis says. She points to the fact that Old Navy teamed up with Nickelodeon stars Ariana Grande and Jennette McCurdy this year, whereas last year the retailer highlighted former Beverly Hills, 90210 stars Jennie Garth and Luke Perry, who are better known to today's generation of parents than kids.
When kids pick out their own clothes, though, it can get expensive. According to Capital One's annual back-to-school survey, parents care more about price, while teens, not surprisingly, care more about style and appearance. Parents want to shop at discount stores, while teens want to buy from department stores. Khalfani-Cox urges parents to stick with their instincts on this one: "Don't get caught up with brand," she warns. "You can make kids see that the $30 jeans from a discount place is just as cute as $100 jeans from a boutique place."
Shop online, even when you're inside the store. Bodge says retailers are doing a better job of integrating the online and in-store shopping experiences, with some stores, like Macy's, even offering iPads to customers while they shop for extra convenience. "Instead of fighting online shopping, retailers are making the best of it ... When you're in the store, you can purchase an item on your mobile phone. We're seeing more of that," Bodge says.
[See: 10 Back-to-School Deals.]
Look for sales tax holidays. If you live in one of the 17 states that offers a holiday from sales taxes, then you can shave off a portion of your back-to-school bill by simply shopping during that period, Khalfani-Cox advises. Many states schedule their sales tax holidays in August; if you missed out this year, don't forget to mark it on your calendar for next year.
Seek out added incentives. Comparison sites such as RetailMeNot.com and PriceGrabber.com offer roundups of top sales and discounts, such as 15 percent off at Old Navy, up to 50 percent off at Macy's and 50 percent off at Sears during back-to-school season. Apple is also offering $100 gift cards for its App store with certain Mac purchases. At Amazon, college students can sign up for "Amazon Student" for free two-day shipping and referring a friend earns them an additional $5 per person.
The main lesson for parents is to dedicate at least some pre-shopping time to ferreting out the best deals -- including checking up on retailers' Twitter and Facebook accounts.