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Is It Really Better to Put Off Back-to-School Shopping?

Thursday, 16 Aug 2012 | 10:00 AM ET

Good news for parents who are putting off their back-to-school shopping: it appears the early bird doesn’t always get the worm.

Matthew Staver | Bloomberg | Getty Images

SumAll, a business analytics company for small- and mid-sized online retailers, recently conducteda studyof the discounts being offered to shoppers at more than 3,000 online retailers. Nearly $500,000 worth of online transactions were studied to find out who snags the best deals, and where and when they happen.

The conclusion: timing really does matter.

“Discounting is incredibly seasonal and there are certain months, weeks, and days where they are more prominent than others,” says Dane Atkinson, SumAll’s CEO. He confirms November is the best month for discount offerings, while March is the worst.

What’s the best day of the week to shop online? The study found shoppers were more likely to snag a bargain on Tuesdays than any other day of the week.

It also appears that either shopping very early in the back-to-school shopping season (July) or very late (September and October) will stretch your dollars farther than in August — a comparatively poor time to snag a good deal.

That likely isn’t news to many savvy shoppers, and it likely explains why the back-to-school shopping season has been getting longer and longer. (For more: Parents Shift Spending to Cope With Back-to-School Costs)

Source: National Retail Federation

Nearly a fourth of back-to-school shoppers say they’ll start opening their wallets at least two months before school begins. Meanwhile, almost half will begin three weeks to a month out, according to a survey conducted for the retail industry trade group, the National Retail Federation, by BIGinsight. (For more: Back-to-School Sales Seen Up Despite Tepid Economy)

Many think the procrastination is tied to consumers being trained over the years to wait for the biggest deals, yet other retail industry experts see other factors at play.

Teens may want to wait to finish their shopping until they see what their friends are wearing, and parents go along because they don’t want to have a closet full of clothes their children won’t wear, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group. He doesn’t see promotions as the chief driver of shopping behavior this season.

Instead he expects parents to indulge their children more by allowing them to pick some items from their own wish list. (For more: Parents' New Nightmare: 'The Basics' Get Complicated')

That said the economy is still top of mind. About 85 percent of the shoppers polled by BIGinsight said the economy will impact how, what, when and why they shop for school and college items.

Getting Them in Door

No doubt they will be comparing prices, hunting for coupons and taking advantage of promotions such as those offered by, where shoppers are asked to “check in before they check out” to get discounts. Macy’s, Old Navy and Best Buy are three retailers who have partnered with Foursquare for back-to-school shopping season.

Other retailers are going beyond the discounts and offering value to back-to-school shoppers in other ways.JCPenneyis offering free haircuts to kids in August, while Wal-Mart has made it easy for parents to research their child’s school supply list from inside the store.

Still, many parents will skip the store entirely. About two out of five back-to-school shoppers will do their shopping online this year — nearly double the number from five years ago, according to the NRF’s survey.

Source: National Retail Federation

StellaService, a company that provides customer service ratings for online retailers, conducted a study of the online versus in-store shopping experiences at Target, Walmart, Costco, Staples, Office Max, and Office Depot .

Online Cost Savings?

On average, it took the online shoppers just 10 minutes to complete their shopping lists and check out, while another shopper trying to buy the same items took about 30 minutes to complete the task inside the store — excluding travel time. But the brick-and-mortar shopper had something else to smile about: they paid an average of $21 less than online shoppers for the same merchandise, which often includes an average of $10.81 more for shipping costs.

So parents may need to figure out which they value more: time or money.

If WSL/Retail Strategies CEO Wendy Liebmann is right, most parents will opt for better use of their time. Based on the results of a survey her firm recently conducted, she expects convenience will be a bigger factor than discounts this back-to-school shopping season.

But Liebmann also points out that having a competitive price is the first step for a retailer even being considered by shoppers.

The good news is many shoppers feel there are good deals to be had. In a recent PriceGrabber survey of 2,745 online shoppers, 48 percent said they felt retailers were offering better promotions on back-to-school items this year compared with last.

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com. Follow Christina Cheddar Berk on Twitter @ccheddarberk.

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