Looking to Save Money on Back-to-School Supplies? Don't Shop Online

Parents will spend an average of $700 to outfit their kids for school this fall.

Online deal sites hope to capitalize on back-to-school shopping by parents of K-12 students.
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While most parents of the 80 million or so kids heading back to school this fall are focusing on pinching pennies, parents in the "1 percent" can go above and beyond to indulge their school-aged children in any number of outrageous, super-expensive school supplies.

A $230,000 lunchbox, anyone? According to consumer spending data firm Bundle.com, such a product actually exists—simply essential for conveying a typical second-grader's midday meal to and from school, right?

[Click here to see a slideshow of more outrageously expensive school supplies.]

But even if a $34,000 alligator skin backpack isn't in the budget, parents will still be forking over a chunk of change to equip their academics for reading, writing, and arithmetic this year. The cost for pencils, erasers, clothes, and other supplies will rack up to a whopping $700 on average, according the National Retail Federation, with total sales for back-to-school and back-to-college amounting to almost $84 billion. That makes back-to-school shopping the second biggest consumer spending event for retailers aside from the winter holidays.

So how can parents contain the pocketbook pain of back-to-school shopping? Surprisingly, not by shopping online. According to a recent study by customer service rating firm STELLAService, shoppers had significantly bigger bills when buying online as opposed to shopping in a bricks-and-mortar store.

The average price in-store for a laundry list of 13 common school supplies was $31 compared to $53 for the average online order, and while the study notes shipping costs for online purchases factored into that discrepancy, it did not account for it in full. (Shipping costs averaged around $10 per order.)

[Read: Deal Sites Jump on Back to School Bus]

But as the old adage goes, time is money. While online shoppers spent more money overall, parents shopping in-store spent significantly more time looking for items in the aisles of mega-stores such as Target and Office Depot. The average shopping time online was around 10 minutes, according to the study, while shopping in-store took about 30 minutes—not including travel time.

While it takes a bit more time, shopping in stores also comes with the advantage of being able to take purchased items home right away, instead of waiting over eight days for five separate boxes to arrive, as one customer experienced with an online Walmart order the report cited.

Shoppers cited other annoyances when it came to shopping online, namely the tedious, repetitive billing and shipping information forms.

"Online shoppers longed for the one-click checkout they have become used to from sites like Amazon.com and found themselves frustrated with the tedious process of entering billing and shipping information," the report said. "Improvements in this process could add to e-commerce's edge in shopping time."

Despite tedious typing, for those who cringe at crowds and long check-out lines, the comfort of shopping online might be worth extra cost and time after all.

Meg Handley is a business reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at mhandley@usnews.com and follow her on Twitter.