If it seems like summer is just getting going, better check the calendar. School starts in a month. Already, ads push sales on paper and pencils, crayons and notebooks.
The average household is expected to spend about $300 on back-to-school supplies, according to a recent survey by ICSC-Goldman Sachs. That's up for nearly half of the respondents, after years of scaling back.
But which stores have the best deals? Who has the best selection?
To find out, I visited Walmart, Staples and Walgreens, stores I thought would have everything on my list. I wanted to avoid multiple stops.
I used a 2012-13 school supply list for third-graders at Tampa's Roosevelt Elementary School. While not every school has put out its list, Roosevelt's seems pretty typical of what parents should expect for that age. It doesn't include must-have backpacks or classroom items often requested by individual teachers.
I started at the Walmart on N Dale Mabry Highway at Interstate 275. The store has a big back-to-school section, thankfully toward the front. You can't miss the bins of crayons, pencils, scissors and glue sticks in the aisles. Bigger items — notebooks, paper, binders — are arranged on shelves.
Complain all you want about Walmart, the store has great low prices. Folders for 15 cents, spiral notebooks for 17 cents, Crayola crayons for 50 cents.
And, on an early weekday morning, the shopping experience was actually pleasant, contrary to negative stereotypes about the store's clientele and customer service. A sales associate working the floor helped me find index cards. I breezed through the checkout line.
Of the three stores, Walmart had the best selection and largest quantities of the items I wanted. It almost seemed like the school based its list around the store's inventory. It had some of the brand names on my list and, in the case of the folders, the specified colors. It also had copies of supply lists for a few local schools — a useful guide even if your child doesn't attend that particular school.
Looking at the neat, well-stocked shelves, it was obvious rewards come to those who shop early. I shuddered to think what the aisles will look like the weekend before school starts.
All said and done, I got the goods problem-free for $23.43.
My next stop was Staples, just up the street. The store advertised "extreme deals'' on binders for a buck and writing pads and dividers for a penny. BIC mechanical pencils were free after a mail-in rebate, and a SanDisk flash drive was only $5.99, down from $24.99.
I got excited for a second before realizing that only one item — the dividers — was on my list. I considered buying the 1-inch binder but ruled against it because my list specified 1.5 inches. Defiance didn't seem like a good idea for the first day of school.
At Staples, look at the fine print, because some of the best deals require a minimum purchase. That isn't a problem if you're buying the bulk of your school supplies, but don't expect to pop in just for the penny deals.
The store carries a lot of Staples brand items, which are higher quality than other brands but might not match up exactly to your list. For basic notebooks and folders, you can find cheaper prices elsewhere.
Families with a bunch of kids might want to buy a Back-to-School Savings Pass. For $10, you get 15 percent off binders, backpacks and other supplies through Sept. 15. Feeling green? Bring in an old binder to recycle and save $2 on a new one.
Overall, Staples has nice stuff and some good deals, if you do your homework and monitor the sales for what you need. But expect to pay top dollar if you shop for your entire list. My list cost $39.02 — 60 percent more than Walmart.
Last up was Walgreens, for which I have a love/hate relationship. I love the convenience and weekly sales. ($1.99 for Raisin Bran! 59 cents for a Butterfinger!) But I hate paying full price.
It's the same drill with school supplies. Shop the sales and you can save a lot. Otherwise you pay the price, and it's high.
Walgreens has weekly deals on some school supplies and doesn't require a minimum purchase. It's feasible you could spend $1 and walk out with three or four items. And you wouldn't have to fight the crowds at the big box stores or park a mile from the door.
Walgreens had the best price for pencils and index cards last week. It also had the worst price for a 24-count box of Crayola crayons ($2.49). Pay that, and you've got way too much money to burn — or are seriously time deprived.
The store didn't have a huge selection of colors and styles, but it had everything on my list. Who knows what the situation will be closer to the school bell? It's a decent option if convenience trumps price. Walgreens came in second at $34.06 for the same quality of goods as Walmart.
Here's the bottom line: For the best prices, go to Walmart now when the pickings are still good and the crowds aren't desperate. Monitor Staples for big discounts and store promotions. Check out Walgreens when you're already in the store for other items. The search for glue sticks should not be stressful.
And keep in mind there's no sales tax on back-to-school items Aug. 3-5. That will make the cost of school supplies even lower.
Susan Thurston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (813) 225-3110.