Savvy shopping for back to school

by Nadia Saar
Stripes Europe

One of the most challenging tasks of parenting is buying supplies and clothing for your children before they start back to school. Every other parent is doing the same thing during those final weeks of summer, making it difficult to find what you need. Here are some tips to keep in mind so that you can avoid some of the chaos of back-to-school shopping. 

The Exchange

The Exchange tends to stock school supplies as early as June so that parents can get a jump-start on back-to-school shopping. This also gives AAFES time to restock merchandise before the new school year commences. 


Although the Exchange meets many back-to-school needs, it can be embarrassing for students when they have the same clothes and backpacks as their classmates. You’ll find more variety online, but you need to keep several factors in mind when placing orders: 

1. Ensure that companies ship to APO boxes. Visit or My Bargain Buddy for a list of APO-friendly stores. 

2. If a vendor doesn’t ship to APO addressess, have orders shipped to a third-party shipper, such as APO Box or Ship it APO, that will forward packages to your APO. Additional costs and longer shipping times will apply. 

3. U.S. companies that don’t ship to APO boxes may ship to your European address, but costs will likely be higher. 

4. Sometimes websites for U.S.-based companies will default to European languages and currencies. Change your location to the United States for U.S. dollar amounts and shipping rates. Remember, your APO box is considered a U.S. address. 

5. Read the fine print on shipping costs and promotions. Sometimes APO addresses are restricted from promos or have higher shipping rates. 

6. Before ordering clothing, refer to the school handbook for information related to dress codes and prohibited items. 

7. When choosing clothing sizes, consider that your children may grow before school starts. 

8. Depending on shipping services available, it can take one to eight weeks to receive merchandise. Give yourself ample time to receive items and return anything that doesn’t work out – this means ordering sometime in June or July. 

9. For speedier shipping, select USPS priority service if it’s available. 

10. Check out European companies for clothing and supplies, which can be shipped to your European address, but make sure they’ll ship to your country of residence. 

The economy

To avoid the hassles of online ordering, venture onto the European economy. Traditional and outlet malls have become quite popular and offer a variety of department stores and shops for different age groups and budgets. You can also check out the downtown pedestrian areas of villages for boutiques and discount stores. Visit hypermarkets, such as Carrefour, Real and Tesco, for one-stop shopping and good prices. Get school supplies, clothing and groceries for the kids’ lunches, all under one roof. 

Afew tips for shopping on the European economy: 

1. Carry the local currency, including coins, because you may need to pay to park, or pay a deposit to use a shopping cart. Additionally, some shops do not accept credit or debit cards, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you take a card, make sure it’s a European debit card (EC or giro card), as these are more widely accepted. 

2. In some countries, clothing and school supplies may be tax-exempt purchases, so take a value-added tax (VAT) form to save money. For more information about VAT relief, read “The Skinny on VAT” in this edition. 

3. Sizes are measured differently in Europe, so make sure you know your children’s European sizes. For a list of size conversions, turn to the Quick Reference Cards at the back of this edition. 

4. Don’t buy American-branded clothing on the economy because you’ll likely pay higher prices as a result of importation costs, taxes and the exchange rate. 

5. At checkout, ask about the store’s return policy, and keep your receipts. If your children are not with you to try clothing on, and the store does not accept returns, it might be best to forego the purchase. 

6. If you need help, just ask. Many European retailers prefer to leave their patrons to shop undisturbed, so sales associates may not approach you while you browse. 

7. European school supplies, such as notebook paper, may differ from what is listed on supply lists. Make sure these are acceptable substitutes. 


Visit thrift stores and flea markets on your installation, as well as yard-sale websites and classifieds (check out Stripes Classifieds). You may find unique and gently used clothing and supplies for a fraction of the cost of new items. 

Whatever you choose to do, here’s hoping that shopping for school isn’t as treacherous this year as it may have been in the past. Get an early start and remember these tips for a less stressful experience. You may even have fun shopping this year!

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