School-supply shoppers aim to find a deal, beat the rush

Buying early is key to getting trendy items, avoiding a frenzy

August 14, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Shopping the back-to-school aisle at a local discount store is like driving on Interstate 95 during rush hour. The carts must be maneuvered around congestion and, at times, they collide. Some Harford parents say, that given a choice, they'd take their chances on the interstate.

"I drive home from Parkville to Bel Air at 4:30 p.m. every day in less time than I got through the school supplies at Wal-Mart," Beth Myerling said with a laugh. "It's a nightmare when you try moving forward and push your cart into the back of someone's heel because they stopped abruptly in front of you. Give me a highway any day."

In response to such scenes, area discount stores display school supplies early, offer supplies online, post supply lists in their stores and make the supplies more accessible for parents with limited time.

"Back-to-school season is just a frenzy," said Mary Fryman, store manager of the Abingdon Wal-Mart. "It's literally bumper-to-bumper shopping carts trying to get to our 10-cent composition books. The closer we get to the first day of school, the worse it gets. The last two weeks of August are the peak of the season and so busy that when I walk by the aisle, there's so many people I wonder what we're giving away."

After a busy day, the aisle looks like a small storm blew through. Folders and notebooks are strewn all over the floor and the shelves. Pens and markers are in the glue section. Compasses find their way in with crayons. Add the congestion in the aisles, and customers are, at times, prevented from finding what they need. And the restocking of shelves can get delayed.

"It gets so busy in our back-to-school aisles it's hard to keep them stocked during the day," Fryman said. "I send my stockers to fill items, but we have to get out alive, too. So, at night, three to five stockers work to replenish the supplies.

"It's one of the toughest seasons we face," she added. "Only Christmas and Fourth of July rank higher in sales."

Fryman said putting supplies out early helps drive sales and gives customers more time to get what they need. And early is relative: The store already has some Halloween and Christmas items displayed.

At nearby Target, Valerie Thompson, an executive team leader, said back-to-school season starts a traditionally busy stretch of the year that culminates with the holidays.

"Back to school is our second-largest sales time," Thompson said. "We test out new employees during back to school, and the ones who do well we keep through the Christmas season. If they can handle back to school, they can handle Christmas."

Style alert

As always, kids are concerned with what's trendy, even when it comes to notebooks.

Vicki Mccauley and her daughter Forestt, a fifth-grader from Bel Air, said they take their time shopping for the simplest of things.

With the same type of concentration and concern they might have when shopping for clothes, the Mccauleys had a box of notebooks on the side of the cart and were carefully examining each one.

"In the fifth grade, notebook covers all have to [be] different, and they need to be the latest styles," said Vicki Mccauley with a smile. "Anyone who's anybody in the fifth grade has the trendiest notebooks. So we take time to look at all of them and make sure we choose some that look good."

Latoya and Weldon Pendleton of Edgewood said they do the same, but without their daughter, Alexis, a sixth-grader.

"I like to come in here and shop for the best buys, but when Weldon comes he likes to buy the things he thinks look the prettiest," Latoya Pendleton said. "When we bring Alexis, she wants everything on the shelves whether it's on the list or not. We always come early before everything has been picked over. It costs us about $100 to get everything on the list."

Cost factor

Cost is perhaps the biggest factor governing when and where people shop, as well as when stores display school supplies. As the number of items on the supply lists increases each year, costs increase, too. In response, merchants make visits to competitors to compare prices.

"We try to think of our customers, and by putting the supplies out early they can buy stuff over time, as opposed to having a family with four kids have to spend $500 the day before school," said Fryman, of Wal-Mart.

For some parents, even the first week of July isn't early enough. Ann Brenes starts buying in March for the next school year because she has six kids she home-schools.

"I buy supplies and books for one child per month, because I can't afford all of them at once," said Brenes, of Philadelphia. "We have friends in Bel Air, and prices are less here, so I come down and visit with them and buy supplies once a month."

Brenes also takes advantage of Web sites.

"Wal-Mart sells textbooks online, and they are usually much cheaper than ordering from a publisher," Brenes said. "I buy books all year long and never have to leave home to do it. That makes life so much easier when you have six kids to teach and a job."

Last-minute mayhem

But local retailers know the worst is yet to come.

"We have heavy traffic in school supplies through the first day of school, and then that day is slow, and then right after school is a madhouse," said Thompson, of Target. "People come in that didn't have a list, or they forgot items, and it's a mess until about 7 p.m."

According to Mccauley, it's not a good time to shop. She has learned through trial and error what works and what doesn't.

"Last year, I came shopping for my daughters' supplies right before school started, and you couldn't get down the aisle. People were packed into it," she said. "I learned my lesson. I shop early and during the week. And we get exactly what we want."

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