NEW YORK – It's mid-August, and parents are scrambling to outfit their kids with backpacks, gadgets and jeans as the clock winds down toward the first day of school.
But don't fret. This season, stores are offering new services and apps to cater to time-starved, smartphone-savvy parents to help them save time and money during the annual shopping ritual.
The gimmicks include new twists on price matching, more choices for same-day delivery and expanded selections online.
"It's a lot easier to find a deal," said Michael Londrigan, dean of academic affairs at LIM College, a fashion college in New York. "It's saving customers a ton of time. It's allowing them to uncover hidden treasures that they wouldn't be able to do without the recent technology."
Parents seem to be playing the waiting game to get the best deal. According to the National Retail Federation's survey of 6,285 shoppers, the average family with children grades kindergarten through grade 12 had completed 49.9 percent of their back-to-school shopping as of Aug. 12. That's down slightly from 52.1 percent from last year at this time.
Mark LoCostra, a spokesman at Dealnews.com, which tracks online prices and sales, says procrastinators will be rewarded.
"This is a golden opportunity to stack coupons and deals," he added.
Coupon site Retailmenot, which works with 50,000 retailers online and in store, says the number of back-to-school coupons spiked nearly 60 percent in mid-July through mid-August, compared with last year.
Here are some tips on how to take advantage:
— NEW TWISTS ON PRICE-MATCHING: Shoppers have been able to get prices of items matched at stores like Best Buy and Target if they see it higher at rivals. But office-supply chain Staples Inc. sweetened its price-matching offer for back-to-school shoppers.
Staples will not only match prices but will take off an additional 10 percent of the difference between its price and a competitor's for an identical product. The offer ends the first week of September.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart just unveiled a new app for its online savings tool called Savings Catcher. The online tool allows customers to compare Wal-Mart's advertised prices on thousands of products with those of some competitors. If a lower price is found elsewhere, Wal-Mart refunds the difference in the form of a store credit.
You can go to the site www.walmart.com/savingscatcher or the Wal-Mart app and enter the receipt number and then the app does the work for you.
— FINDING THE DEALS: There are a host of apps and online sites like Retailmenot.com and Dealnews.com to help you find deals.
At Retailmenot.com, there are 500,000 offers plus coupons at any given time, according to spokesman Brian Hoyt. It also features hand-picked back-to-school offers.
Retailmenot.com has an app that uses GPS at 15,000 shopping centers to push coupons to shoppers' smartphones.
Meanwhile, Target launched a new service called Cartwheel last year that helps shoppers find discounts on the store's website. You can share them with their Facebook friends and then redeem them in Target stores with their smartphone.
— TRENDS FOR LESS: Looking for some yoga pants? Or trendy tops? Parents and kids can turn to online consignment sites, to pick up gently used trendy items.
For example, ThredUp.com has a "back-to-school" tab where parents can buy Polo Ralph Lauren short sleeve shirts for $4.99 and DKNY jumpers for $9.99. Furthermore, both H&M and TJ Maxx launched their online sites late last year.
H&M offers an online denim guide for jeans starting at $9.95. TJMaxx.com offers such deals as printed leggings for $7.99.
— SPEEDIER SERVICES: Shoppers now have more options to buy online and pick up their purchases at the store.
Macy's just rolled out the service to all of its namesake stores and Bloomingdale's. It follows several retailers like Wal-Mart, Sears and Kmart stores, which have had the option for several years.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart is testing same-day delivery of general merchandise in three markets: Northern Virginia, Philadelphia and Minneapolis.
Target is now testing $10 rush delivery in the Minneapolis, Boston and Miami markets, offering customers the ability to order as late as 1:30 p.m. and receive a delivery of qualifying items between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. the same day.
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