August 2, 2011, 2:58 PM

Parents head online for school supplies

Half of parents will buy pencils, backpacks and books from e-retailers this year.

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Half of parents of school-age kids say they will buy at least some school supplies online, according to a back-to-school online shopping survey from consulting firm Accenture. 70% of parents who say they’ll shop online say they expect to save money or find better discounts by shopping at e-retailers.

Prices and discounts seem certain to guide a significant number of purchases this year, according to the June survey of 624 adult consumers. 91% of respondents consider prices and discounts a top priority in selecting a retailer for school supplies, up from 89% last year—a potential plus for online retailing, as consumers can easily compare prices on the web. 69% say product quality is a determining factor, down from 74% last year. 49% of consumers say they’ll select a retailer that usually has everything they are looking for in stock, up from 48% last year.

And it’s not only the search for the lowest price that will help to bring parents online—e-retailing also means less hassle. 40% of respondents say online shopping helps them avoid visiting multiple bricks-and-mortar retail stores because needed supplies are out of stock. (Accenture had no comparative e-commerce data from 2010.) 28% say shopping online means they can avoid boring the children with shopping trips. 17% say they’ll be under less pressure from their children to buy certain products, while 7% say their kids’ schools coordinate with online retailers to have the required supplies available for sale.

46% of respondents say they’ll buy at least some supplies online, while 3% say they’ll buy most school supplies online and 1% say they’ll buy all their kids’ back-to-school necessities online, according to the Accenture survey.

Overall, 69% of parents say they plan on spending the same or less on supplies this year. 50% say they expect to spend $250 or less.

Even if they ultimately decide to buy offline, consumers are still doing their research and hunting for coupons online, and increasingly using their mobile phones to compare prices while inside stores, during the back-to-school shopping season. A separate survey of 1,086 adults from comparison shopping engine PriceGrabber says 68% of adults plan to shop online or use a comparison shopping engine to find deals, up from 23% who said the same last year. 41% say they’ll search retailer web sites for printable coupons, up from 33% in 2010. 27% say they’ll use their smartphones to compare prices offered by other merchants while shopping, up from 17% who said they would use their phones last year. 10% of consumers say they intend to shop for supplies using their smartphones.

Another recent back-to-school online shopping survey, this one sponsored by e-retailer Buy.com Inc., says dads are more likely to splurge when buying school supplies than are moms. The average planned spending by dads on school supplies is $210 versus $171 for moms. Buy.com is No. 32 in Internet Retailer’s Top 500 Guide.

The PriceGrabber survey also reported on what’s on back-to-school shopping lists this year. 78% of consumers say they plan to buy general school supplies—this includes paper and pencils—with 74% planning apparel purchases, 46% backpacks or tote bags  and 44% books. Fewer consumers say they are shopping for big-ticket electronics than last year. 17% say they plan to buy a laptop computer as part of their back-to-school shopping, down from 24% last year. The Accenture survey found a similar trend. 12% of respondents to that survey said they planned to buy a laptop, down from 18% in 2010.  6% say they’ll include buying a cell phone in their back-to-school shopping plans, down from 10% last year.

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