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Wal-Mart's back-to-school sales: Worth an early shopping trip?

August is back-to-school month for students across the country and Wal-Mart has a slew of back-to-school sales, but is it really time to shop for lunchboxes and laptops already?

By Cheapism.com Aug 4, 2014 11:39AM
This post comes from Louis DeNicola at partner site Cheapism.com.

Cheapism.com on MSN MoneyAugust is back-to-school month for students across the country, but is it really time to shop for lunchboxes and laptops already? Wal-Mart is catering to college students with sales that started last week. The retailer’s now-annual "Back-to-School Cyber Monday" event today will feature 400 deals with an average savings of 35 percent.

Wal-Mart shopping carts (© Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)The discounts include electronics, dorm room essentials such as space-saving shelves, and small apartment furniture such as futons, tables, and chairs. Here’s a sneak peek at how a few of the deals compare to the competition:

16GB Apple iPad 4 with Retina display: $349 at Wal-Mart starting Aug. 1. Apple products are known for never going on sale. This is likely a loss leader for Wal-Mart (i.e., the store won’t make money on it but is banking on customers buying other products when they come in). If you’re on the lookout for an iPad, jump on this Wal-Mart deal.

HP Envy 4502 wireless printer: $69 at Wal-Mart starting Aug. 1. The 4502 appears to be a Wal-Mart model, but Amazon and Staples sell the nearly identical HP Envy 4500 for $69, as well. Staples has a rewards program and weekly coupon codes that may apply to the purchase.

Nextbook Tablet with 8GB of memory: $80 at Wal-Mart starting Aug. 1. Amazon again matches this price, but the many negative reviews of this tablet may prompt consumers to question whether it’s something they really want. Consider stepping up to one of Cheapism’s picks for best cheap tablet.

Although the back-to-school discounts do include a number of great deals, be careful not to get sucked into spending more than you need to on other items. Wal-Mart has a 14-inch Lenovo ThinkPad T440s for $1,246, while online retailer PCNation sells the identical laptop for $1,180.

Consumers can realize additional savings elsewhere by taking advantage of coupons and rewards programs. Bed, Bath & Beyond is famous for frequently sending customers 20-percent-off coupons and carries many dorm essentials. Using a coupon on an item such as a mini-fridge can rack up some decent savings.

Sometimes discounts can be found at other stores but may not be worth the extra trip. Take the ruled notebook, a necessity throughout grade school and college. Mead notebooks with 70 sheets of wide-ruled paper are on sale at Wal-Mart for 25 cents each. A Staples-brand version is marked down to 17 cents.  

Price matching
If you do find items that cost less at competing stores, you can request a price match at Wal-Mart, although Cheapism’s in-depth comparison found that Wal-Mart’s price-match policy doesn’t rank too well against other retailers’. The guarantee doesn’t include Internet pricing, and too many customers complain that employees don’t honor in-store match requests even with proof of the competitor’s price.

Wal-Mart’s new Savings Catcher will let customers enter their receipt information online to automatically check if a nearby store had any items at a lower cost and receive an electronic gift card for the difference. This may prove a good alternative for shoppers who’ve been given a hard time at the store. The tool doesn't officially roll out until Aug. 4, so we have yet to see how well it will work. 

Early reviews from the Savings Catcher’s test phase are mixed. A reporter at the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press netted a $5.62 credit and notes that the tool reveals which competitor has the lower price. A blogger writing at Three Thrifty Guys was tripped up by the fine print of Wal-Mart’s Ad Match Guarantee: The tool missed a lower price at Target for a stick of deodorant, because the Target deal was not advertised. The items also must be identical (no store-brand goods), and all other price-match restrictions apply. Among the exclusions are buy-one-get-one deals and sales that advertise a percentage off but don’t show a final sale price. In addition, a lot of items are exempt from the Savings Catcher, according to Wal-Mart’s online FAQ, including electronics, small appliances, home decor, toys, sporting goods, and housewares. That could lead some consumers to miss out on savings they would have been granted in person.

Although there are much better ways to spend a summer day and the retail giant has a somewhat negative public image, many consumers still find reason to shop at Wal-Mart. They cite low prices, easy access, long hours, and a wide selection. Cheapism comparisons have found that Wal-Mart beats Target and Kmart on pricing in a variety of categories. Wal-Mart even bests Kroger as the cheapest grocery store.

Shop now and pay no taxes
Wal-Mart’s upcoming back-to-school events coincide with sales-tax holidays in some states. These often extend to clothing, computers, and school supplies up to a specific amount -- $100 for clothing, for example. Check this chart from the Federation of Tax Administrators for the rules in your state.

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