Fay Gold, a resident of Potomac, Maryland, will not be heading to the mall this weekend or going online to purchase the latest must-have items for her 17-year-old daughter.
"I'm not swayed by Labor Day specials and never felt Labor Day was a time for deals," she said. Despite all the promotions retailers tout, Gold said she spent the same amount for school supplies as in previous years for half the amount of items.
Gold is realizing what many retail experts already know: the sales aren't as great as you might think. While retailers are offering deep discounts on summer inventory like grills and patio furniture, there are fewer bargains to be found with in-season items like fall clothes this holiday weekend.
A recent survey commissioned by RetailMeNot, found that nearly 65 percent of Americans plan to shop during Labor Day weekend, up from 59 percent of consumers who shopped last year.
Some of that demand is likely coming from procrastinating back-to-school shoppers. In Deloitte's "Back-to-School" survey, 54 percent of respondents indicated they were planning to shop just before their kids head back to school, and another 26 percent would wait until after the start of the school year.
But they could wind up disappointed. While consumers might see discounts in the 25 percent to 30 percent range for apparel-an area where sales have been sluggish-prices are usually slashed 50 percent to 60 percent during Black Friday, said Mary Delk, a strategy operations director for Deloitte Consulting's retail and wholesale distribution practice.
"This year, pre-Labor Day deals on back-to-school items have been few and far between," said Jenn Markey, vice president of marketing at 360pi, a price intelligence firm.
Howard Schaffer, vice president of deal-and-coupon site Offers.com, said it's best to stay away from fall apparel, as well as outwear, in particular. Retailers are trying to entice people to pay full price to get the latest trends, colors and looks, he said. But parents will pay a premium to have their children dress in the freshest clothing, since prices won't be marked down until demand falls. That means the best sales aren't likely until November.
For school supplies, he said you'll save the most money by waiting as long as you can, and not buying them all at once.
Mark LoCastro, a spokesman for DealNews, said October is when school items typically go on closeout. He said that last year, Sears offered kids' backpacks for as little as $4 that month.
Electronics aren't discounted during Labor Day weekend nearly as much as they are on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, said Matthew Ong, senior retail analyst at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Ong cited a 55-inch LG television, which sold for $749 during Labor Day last year. During Black Friday, the same model was slashed to $499.99.
"That's a dramatic example, but in general, electronics will be across-the-board cheaper on Black Friday," averaging 50 percent off versus 30 percent off during Labor Day, he said. That includes everything from GPS systems to camcorders, televisions and laptops. Ong said you're better off waiting a couple of months to get the best deal, since during Black Friday, the quantity of deals will be bigger in every product category.
During Labor Day, "retailers would like people to believe there are more discounts than there really are," he said.
Delk said Labor Day is a "needs-based" holiday, which makes it "bigger and broader" than other holiday weekends, like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, for retailers, but it doesn't come close to rivaling Black Friday for bargain hunting. While newspaper inserts or direct mailings range from eight to 30 pages for Labor Day, they're in the 60- to 80-page range during Black Friday, she said.
Labor Day certainly isn't as big a weekend as Black Friday, but it's nonetheless "a great time for bargains," said Daniel Butler, a vice president at the National Retail Federation. He said while fall goods, sweaters, coats and winter items might be regularly priced, "retailers put a lot of bargains out there," discounting items by 20 percent, to 60 percent to 70 percent for clearance items.
"Labor Day is one of our top four holiday weekends. People are in the market to buy and we make sure to give them plenty of reasons to buy," said Diane K. Charles, a spokeswoman for Art Van Furniture in Warren, Michigan. Everything except lamps and accessories, like mirrors and rugs, are on sale, Charles said.
Office Depot (ODP) and OfficeMax stores have many deeply discounted items for back to school, said Julianne Embry, a company spokeswoman. Backpacks are 25 percent off, while the chain is offering "penny deals" that begin on Sunday, including a 25-cent slide pencil box and 25 cents for a 12-pack of colored pencils.
Target (TGT) is offering 30 percent off uniforms beginning Sunday and $5 tees and $10 denim through Sept. 6, said Jenna Reck, a company spokeswoman.
But Gold still isn't swayed. She plans to hold out until Columbus Day to get the best deals on back-to-school clothes.
"By that time, my daughter sees what's popular at school. That has paid off in terms of getting the clothes she wants and will wear throughout the fall and winter"-and at a far more reasonable price.
-By Julie Halpert, special to CNBC