Mother and daughter, each wearing a COVID face mask, carry shopping bags

Back to school: It’s long been celebrated as the most wonderful time of year for parents. And this year, after spending months at home during COVID-19 quarantine, getting back into a routine feels even more celebratory. But heading back to stores to pick up school supplies and first-day outfits might not drum up the same excitement, especially while concerns about in-store safety still loom. To help you get ready without all the extra stress, we’ve got smart back-to-school shopping tips to make the experience as safe and easy as possible—whether or not you bring your kids along for the ride.

1Get the Kids Involved—Online

If you have a partner or childcare to watch your kids, you might prefer to shop for back-to-school supplies solo. But you can get little ones excited at home by setting up an online browsing game before you head to the stores. Make it engaging by creating a bingo chart with all of the necessary items: a new backpack, pens, paper and notebooks, tablet accessories and, of course, all of the clothes! Challenge older kids to create a shopping-list video on TikTok or a Pinterest board of picks and review it with them beside you before you head to the store.

2Amp them Up with the Stuff they Love Most

Don’t forget to get your kids to weigh in on the fun stuff, too: A new set of lace-free indoor sneakers for your smaller children or a cool jacket for your preteen will help all ages feel confident about their fresh start. You can even have them draw a picture of themselves dressed in their first-day outfit. Remember, this shift in routine has been difficult on them, too.

3Make an In-Store vs Online Shopping Plan

Before heading out, browse online to see what’s available at your local store and what you can purchase online to save yourself a heavy haul (especially if your other half plans to stay at home to watch the kids). Maybe you’re hoping to make a fun desk space for homework instead of the kitchen table, but don’t have a large car to transport all the boxes. Look online for desks, toy storage solutions and ergonomic office chairs. Once you’re in store, you can double check the dimensions and see if the colour palette works with your space. Whatever you don’t find in store (or can’t carry) can be added to your online order once you’re back at home.

4Write Out Your List (Just Like the Good Ol' Days!)

Stay focused on your shopping trip by first creating an old-fashioned paper list that you can discard after your trip. That way you don’t have to worry about germs harbouring on your phone—and you’ll get out of the store much faster if you aren’t distracted by texts and emails.

5Hit the Stores Safely

Before you leave your house, make sure you have a face mask on hand[1], as most shops don’t distribute these. Several stores have implemented other precautions that start before you even set foot inside, says Walmart Canada’s Michael Gill, who works on the Store Innovation team and is responsible for ensuring each Canadian location is as COVID-proofed as possible. “Safety was the first thing that came to mind when redesigning our stores—for our customers and associates,” he says. “You can’t protect one without protecting another.” From sanitized carts to socially distanced tape details on the floor to employee temperature checks before each shift, Gill and the team worked one step at a time to make sure the experience was safe and seamless.

If you end up waiting in line outside before entering, you can scan a displayed QR code that will take you to a video about all of the steps they have taken to ensure safety within the store. And once inside the store, there are many large changes, including coloured floor tape to control the flow of traffic and closed cashiers to allow for ample physical distancing, as well as small ones, such as removing the cardboard stick that separates one customer’s order from the next. For added peace of mind, slip a mini hand sanitizer in your purse, too. Spray your hands after you’ve loaded your items into your car and before you start driving.

6Keep Your Hands Off (and Little Hands Distracted)

Touching items before purchasing them is second nature when it comes to shopping. But times have changed, and it’s best to keep your hands to yourself—and on your sanitized cart. If your kids are in tow, it’s strongly recommended that they wear masks if they’re over the age of three[2] (younger kids are likely to have difficulty wearing them or touch them too much, which could make a facial covering counterproductive) and entice them with an ice-cream visit after you shop as long as they keep their hands from exploring items. A handheld tablet might come in handy here, too!

Do your best to estimate if the item you’re after suits your needs simply by looking at it, and don’t hesitate to ask a sales associate if you have any questions. Ultimately, you will need to touch items when you’re ready to purchase, so don’t sweat. Just make sure to avoid touching your face until after you’ve washed your hands at home.

Touching items before purchasing them is second nature when it comes to shopping. But times have changed, and it’s best to keep your hands to yourself—and on your sanitized cart. If your kids are in tow, it’s strongly recommended that they wear masks if they’re over the age of three[2] (younger kids are likely to have difficulty wearing them or touch them too much, which could make a facial covering counterproductive) and entice them with an ice-cream visit after you shop as long as they keep their hands from exploring items. A handheld tablet might come in handy here, too!

Do your best to estimate if the item you’re after suits your needs simply by looking at it, and don’t hesitate to ask a sales associate if you have any questions. Ultimately, you will need to touch items when you’re ready to purchase, so don’t sweat. Just make sure to avoid touching your face until after you’ve washed your hands at home.

7Get on it Early

While most stores have sorted out their supply chain and vendor issues by now, it never hurts to start shopping early—particularly if your child is after something specific, like a glitter-dusted knapsack or a specific style of indoor shoes. By chipping away at your list and securing the necessary pieces now, it will feel a little easier on your wallet—plus, you’ll avoid that last-minute stress when everyone else is looking for the same items. However, if you’re swamped until the days right before schools reopen, know that most stores will continue to monitor capacity, so it’s unlikely you’ll feel like you’re in a mosh pit even if you end up last-minute shopping.

8Sort Out Your Sanitizer Situation

Check whether your school board will be installing hand sanitizer dispensers in classrooms (after the H1N1 outbreak, for example, the Vancouver School District decided against supplying the potentially intoxicating and flammable liquid[3]). If not, you might still be allowed to stock their backpacks with sanitizer in a personalized caddy for the bus ride home (make sure your little ones know it’s for hands only).

9Invest in Easy-to-Wash Everything

For school lunches, look for hard-sided containers or zippered pouches that can be soaked in soapy water or sprayed with disinfectant. Water bottles (with flip tops that protect the spout!) and food containers that are dishwasher safe will also give you the peace of mind, since the dishwasher can sanitize them in seconds[4]. Look for cotton or canvas running shoes free of fussy add-ons that can be tossed into the washing machine (same goes for their backpack).

10Label Now, Relax Later

Ensuring you label your child’s belongings will save you, your child and their teacher the headache of sorting through miscellaneous pieces at school and potentially spreading germs. Sure, purchasing a set of personalized, waterproof labels costs a little extra up front, but it will save you money in the long run if you prevent your kids things from ending up at another child’s home or in the lost-and-found bin. Plus, you’ll be able to use the labels for years to come on items like sports equipment, summer camp supplies and luggage.

Smart Back-to-School Finds

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Masks are required at Walmart in all jurisdictions which have passed mandatory orders requiring masks. In all other jurisdictions, Walmart strongly recommends its associates and customers wear masks.