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Back-to-school shopping 2020: 5 tips to get ready whether at home or in the classroom

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Leave it to a pandemic to upend yet another American tradition: Back-to-school shopping. Oh, it’s still happening. It just looks different than, say, every mad-dash parent scramble for school supplies over the last century. It comes with a higher price tag and critical shortages, too.

With so many students starting this new school year at home, the National Retail Federation says spending could top $100 billion. That number breaks all kinds of records as parents and college students ditch the No. 2 pencils and trips to Forever 21 for more pricey supplies like laptops and desks.

On top of it all, there’s a laptop shortage, as supply chain issues and trade tariffs on China add to months-long delays in meeting meteoric demand.

The good news? There are always workarounds, and we’ve put the top five together here to help you get what you want and need, at prices you can afford.
1. Buy what you can, as you can
Back-to-school time is usually the biggest shopping season after the winter holidays. In year’s past, many experts advised waiting for the big sales during Labor Day weekend, but not this year.

“I’ve been covering back-to-school sales for almost a decade, and I’ve never seen these kinds of shortages, or this kind of demand,” consumer analyst Michael Bonebright told me. Bonebright says that could make getting what you need a Black Friday-level challenge, so don’t wait.
“I have two kids in virtual elementary school right now, so I’m in the same boat as other parents,” he says.

Bonebright also advises casting a wide net, and striking while the iron’s hot.

“You don’t have to buy a laptop on Amazon,” he says. “Instead, buy a refurbished laptop or Chromebook directly from a manufacturer’s outlet, such as Dell or Lenovo. When you buy a refurbished product directly from a manufacturer, you’re getting a device that’s been thoroughly inspected and repaired, as well as a much better warranty.”
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2. Go for Chrome(books) at home
If money’s tight, set your sights on a Chromebook vs. a laptop. Chromebooks often have all the features most students need, for a fraction of the cost, and there are still top models available.
One of the favorites from my recent reviews includes the 128 gigabyte, 10.1 inch Lenovo Chromebook Duet ($300). It’s a handy 2-in-1, that’s surprisingly sturdy at this price point, has two cameras – perfect for class Zoom calls – and comes with a detachable keyboard so that kids can use it as a tablet or laptop. The best part though is that as of the time I’m writing this – it’s actually in stock – or available for pickup within a week –and expected to stay that way.

3. Get in-stock and exclusive deal alerts
One of the biggest frustrations is finally finding the device you want or need, only to see it’s out of stock when you try to put it in your virtual cart. That’s why savvy shoppers sign up for in-stock and exclusive deal alerts ahead of time – and make the sales work for them versus the other way around.

At Best Buy, for example, you can sign up for the Student Deals program to get exclusive offers on tons of back-to-school must-have’s.

“Students looking for any back-to-school tech, like laptops, printers, small appliances and hard drives, can sign up for free and access a number of different, exclusive sales available in stores and online,” says Keegan Shoutz, who works in communications at Best Buy.

“On the Best Buy app and, you can also see which products are available at your nearest store (although you won’t be able to see the quantity we have in-stock). If a product is out of stock, you can sign up to get alerted when it’s in-stock again.”

You can also sign up for alerts from other services like NowInStock, zooLert, and DealNews to track several products at once, including from stores that don’t offer alerts on their own.