Hello and welcome to Financial Face-off, a MarketWatch column where we help you weigh a financial decision. Our columnist will give her verdict. Tell us whether you think she’s right in the comments. And please share your suggestions for future Financial Face-off columns by emailing our columnist at email@example.com.
Back-to-school season is here and the scent of freshly sharpened pencils is in the air. So is the scent of stress. If you’re a parent staring at a list of supplies your kid is supposed to bring to their new classroom, you’re probably wondering, where can I buy these crayons and notebooks quickly and cheaply?
That made me wonder which online retailer has cheaper school supplies: Walmart WMT, -0.27% or Target TGT, -2.61% ? To find out, I shopped at both retailers for all 21 items on an actual fourth-grade supply list from a New York City public school.
Why it matters
We’re talking about big money. Families say they plan to spend an average of $251 on school supplies this year, and $1,498 in all on back-to-school shopping for items ranging from shoes and socks to calculators, according to a survey by RetailMeNot, a site that lists online shopping discounts.
Inflation-weary shoppers say they’re stressed out about the cost of supplies and worried about finding time to buy them, the survey found.
“Consumers are stretching their dollars by comparing prices, considering off-brand or store-brand items, and are more likely to shop at discount stores than last year,” said Phil Rist, executive vice president of strategy at Prosper Insights & Analytics, which surveyed shoppers about back-to-school shopping for the National Retail Federation.
This surprised me: Target was the winner by a whisker. It had the lowest total when I went to each retailer’s website, looked up each item on the supply list and sorted the search results by price to find the cheapest version of each item. Using this method, Target’s total was $64.69 for all 21 items. Walmart was very close at $66.04. But there’s more to the story.
This chart shows the lowest prices I could find at Walmart and Target on Aug. 9 and 10. You can see the exact products at the bottom of this story.
I tried to make the comparison as fair as possible by searching for the same phrase, such as “marble notebook,” and looking for the same size and quantity of an item on both sites. I also tried to buy the exact quantity requested on the school’s supply list, because extra stuff creates clutter at home. I chose some of the items based on personal preference. For example, the list called for a “pack of crayons” and I chose a 24-pack, although a 12-pack may have been cheaper.
Comparisons weren’t always apples to apples, because the two retailers carry different brands and different versions of products. For example, the cheapest 24-pack of crayons I could find at Walmart was its store brand, Pen+Gear, which was 25 cents. Target’s cheapest was a Crayola 24-count box for 50 cents.
In response to MarketWatch’s question about the price differences I found between Walmart and Target, a Walmart spokesperson did her own research and concluded that a shopper can find all the items on my list at Walmart for just $42.04, versus $49.67 at Target. Her list included some slightly different product choices than mine did. For instance, she chose a 12-pack of pencils while I chose a 24-pack.
Walmart has said that it hasn’t raised prices for school supplies since last year and that it sells the 14 most popular school supplies for $12.94. “The back-to-school season is such an important time for students, teachers and families. At Walmart, we want to help everyone start the new school year off right with an easy, convenient shopping experience and all the supplies on their list in fun and trendy styles at Walmart’s every day low prices,” said Julie Barber, the executive vice president for general merchandise at Walmart U.S.
Target declined to comment on the price comparison, but a spokesperson pointed me toward some deals that Target is offering this back-to-school season, including a 20% discount for teachers on one entire shopping trip through Aug. 26.
Is my verdict best for you?
If saving time is more important to you than saving money, there’s another way to do your school-supply shopping — but it costs more.
On both Walmart’s and Target’s websites, you can look up your specific school’s supply lists. You can do this here for Walmart and here for Target. I was skeptical that this would work, but it did. I found my local school’s fourth-grade list on both sites, and in both cases it was the same as the paper version handed out by the school. Both stores let you add the entire list to your shopping cart with just one click, an amazing time saver.
However, both Walmart’s and Target’s versions of the supply lists were more expensive than the totals I got when I picked out all 21 items myself. The total for the Walmart version was $85.68, and the total for the Target version was $117.99. That’s because in both cases, the store’s version of the list included some pricier-than-necessary items. For example, my school’s list asked for a single roll of paper towels, which sells for 99 cents at Target, but Target’s version had a six-pack of paper towels for $9.99.
My advice: Save yourself a bunch of time and look up your school’s list on Target or Walmart. Add it to your cart with one click, but use it as a starting point. Look carefully at the quantities and the specific products to make sure you’re not spending on stuff you don’t need.
Tell us in the comments which option should win in this Financial Face-off. If you have ideas for future Financial Face-off columns, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Item on 4th-grade supply list||Walmart product||Total Walmart price||Target product||Total Target price|
|7 marble notebooks||Pen + Gear Composition Book, 100 Pages, 50 cents each||$3.50||Unison Solid Composition Notebook, 80 pages, 50 cents each||$3.50|
|10 two-pocket folders||Pen + Gear Two Pocket Paper Folder, 15 cents each||$1.50||up & up 2 Pocket Plastic Folder, 50 cents each||$5.00|
|1 soft zippered pencil case||Pen + Gear Cloth Zipper Pencil Pouch, 97 cents||$0.97||up & up Canvas Zipper Pencil Pouch, $2.99||$2.99|
|2 packs of sharpened pencils||Staedtler HB/#2 Wood Pencils with Eraser, 24-pack, $3.22 each||$6.44||up & up #2 Wood Pencils 24-count, 99 cents each||$1.98|
|1 pair of safety scissors||Pen + Gear Blunt Tip 5″ Scissors for Kids, 74 cents||$0.74||up & up 2-pack Kids’ Scissors Blunt Tip, $1.49||$1.49|
|1 protractor||Pen+Gear Plastic Compass and Protractor Set, $1.97||$1.97||up & up Compass and Protractor Set, $4.39||$4.39|
|1 pack of 8.5″ x 11″ colored paper||Astrobrights Colored Paper, 500 Sheets, $19.16||$19.16||Astrobrights 500-Sheet Printer Paper, $14.95||$14.95|
|2 boxes of tissues||Kleenex Trusted Care Facial Tissues, 1 Flat Box, 72 Tissues, $1.08 each||$2.16||up & up Facial Tissue 144-count, $2.49 each||$4.98|
|1 roll of paper towels||Paper Towels, 1 Roll, 88 Sheets, 68 cents||$0.68||Smartly Make-A-Size Paper Towels, 99 cents||$0.99|
|2 containers of Clorox Wipes||Clorox Bleach-Free Disinfecting and Cleaning Wipes, 35-count, $3.38 each||$6.76||Clorox Fresh Scent Bleach-Free Disinfecting Wipes, 35-count, $4.19 each||$8.38|
|2 pads of Post-Its||Post-it Super Sticky Notes, 3 in x 3 in, 1 Pad, $1.00 each||$2.00||Oasis Post-it Notes, 3-pack, $2.39||$2.39|
|1 box of crayons||Pen+Gear Crayons, 24-count, 25 cents||$0.25||Crayola 24-count Kids Crayons, 50 cents||$0.50|
|1 box of markers||Crayola Classic Broad Line Markers, 10-count, 97 cents||$0.97||Mondo Llama 10-count markers, 50 cents||$0.50|
|1 box of colored pencils||Crayola Colored Pencils Set, 12-count, 97 cents||$0.97||Mondo Llama 12-count Colored Pencils, 50 cents||$0.50|
|1 bottle of liquid glue||Elmer’s Washable Liquid School Glue, White, 4 oz., 50 cents||$0.50||Elmer’s 4 oz. Washable School Glue, 50 cents||$0.50|
|2 glue sticks||Elmer’s Disappearing Purple Washable School Glue Sticks, 2-count, 50 cents||$0.50||Elmer’s 2-pack Washable School Glue Sticks, 50 cents||$0.50|
|1 red pen||Sharpie S-Gel Red Ink Gel Pen, 2-count, $2.87||$2.87||BIC Xtra Life Ballpoint Pens, 10-count, red, $1.29||$1.29|
|1 blue pen||RSVP Ballpoint Pen, Blue Ink 2-pack, 96 cents||$0.96||BIC Xtra Life Ballpoint Pens, 10-count, blue, $1.29||$1.29|
|1 pack of highlighters||Sharpie Liquid Highlighter, Chisel Tip, 5-count, $6.18||$6.18||BiC 5-pack Highlighter Brite Liner, $1.79||$1.79|
|1 pack of Expo markers||Expo Low Odor Dry Erase Markers, Chisel Tip, Black, 6-count, $4.88||$4.88||Expo 4-pack Dry Erase Markers Bullet Tip, $4.79||$4.79|
|1 pack of baby wipes||Huggies Wipes with Aloe & Vitamin E, Unscented, 56 Total count, $2.08||$2.08||up & up Fragrance-Free Baby Wipes, 72-count, $1.99||$1.99|
|TOTAL||Walmart total:||$66.04||Target total:||$64.69|