Shopping Madness: 5 Tips to Get an Extra Bargain

Retail stores are opening earlier than ever to try to catch the wave of Black Friday shoppers — see disgruntled Wal-Mart employees for more information and kvetching — but a scan of the ads thus far isn’t offering too much incentive to risk life and limb at a midnight — excuse me, 8 p.m., whatever — store opening. A few retailers even started their deals online today (probably a boon to public safety), and many more will put their deals online starting Thanksgiving so shoppers can sit at home in PJs bloating on turkey instead of sitting in a pup tent outside Best Buy.

There are the standard cut-rates on third-tier flat-panel TVs. Wal-Mart is selling an iPad for the same price that the Apple store charges, but is throwing in a $75 gift card with purchase. Other stores are offering “doorbusters” that amount to 25-50 percent off or so. In other words, nothing you can’t find in winter and summer clearance periods.

Yes, I’m a huge fan of off-season shopping. I’m also a longtime advocate of the bargain hunt, considering I’ve always been a fashionista label-snob but have always drawn a journalist’s salary. And even when I started making more money, I was set in my ways: Why buy regular price when redlines exist? Hunting for bargains, with years of strategy and wins under one’s belt, is a sport of sorts. Unfortunately, days like Black Friday are turned into a full-contact sport — see the case of the Wal-Mart worker trampled to death in 2008. And there’s a bit of disappointment, as a fiscal conservative, to see people throwing things in the cart en masse that may not be the best deal after all.

So in the interest of shopping diplomacy, here are a few things to watch as you shop.

Know which store is best for which product

This is not especially a category for the hate-to-shops who just want to get in the stores, grab the nearest thing that fits and comes in a non-vile color, and get out. But knowing which stores to target is half the battle.

For example, if moving into a new place the first instinct for getting all the bath furnishings, dishes and kitchen stuff, pillows and throws, etc., may be to head for a retailer with “home” in the title. My first instinct is to head for Ross, where I’ve consistently found the best deals on home stuff, including silverware, down bed pillows, throw rugs, and the like. Add that to the clearance racks at Pier One (check around the whole store because the red-tag sections are spread out) for dishes, glassware, and the down-filled velvet throw pillows I adore. For a step up from Ross — in both prices and the brands that you’ll find — check out a T.J. Maxx or Marshalls, where you’re bound to find gems like Kate Spade sheets along with impressive shoe departments.

For rock-bottom price leather handbags from Italy, Loehmanns’ is a great source (along with being the source of the $1,400 Dolce & Gabbana suede messenger bag I picked up years ago in the redline case for $105). And you can’t find clearance Ugg boots many places — they’re consistently exempt, for example, from Lord & Taylor coupons — except at Nordstrom Rack, and usually in the summer.

And never disregard a store because you think it will just be too expensive: Killer deals can be found at the clearance outlets for Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, and Barneys New York.

Go to the source

I have a particular fondness for my hometown brand, Juicy Couture. When I first started buying Juicy many years ago, one’s best bet seemed to be places like Loehmann’s and some other discount outlets. The price on a handbag, for example, usually amounted to about 50 percent off retail. Both the discount department stores and the Juicy outlets (which usually have 30 percent off markdowns on holiday weekends) featured an assemblage of standard styles from seasons past at pretty good prices.

I then moved next to a Lord & Taylor, which had good clearance prices on the new styles, especially considering there’s always a printable extra-discount coupon online to take into the stores (and if you say you forgot it, the sales associate has one socked by the register).

But I’ve never gotten as good of a deal as when I started buying directly from the Juicy website. Not only do the products arrive in factory packaging (thus they haven’t been manhandled in a store or tried on), but the sales can’t be beat. Recently, I got a beautiful wool felt, patent-trimmed shoulder bag that was regularly $248 — with markdowns and promo code, it came down to $56. I consistently see Juicy items on “discount” sites for much more than the current price at Juicy itself. So never underestimate buying direct.

Free shipping on any size order every day rules

I hope the retail trend is moving in the direction of free shipping. Most places let you get free standard shipping if your purchase exceeds a certain dollar amount. started to edge toward the trend of free shipping by shipping any order for $2.95. Now a number of sites offer free shipping for any dollar amount, any day: examples are clothing retailers Nordstrom, Piperlime, Revolve Clothing, and 6PM.

This saves you money in a couple of ways. Not only do you save on shipping costs, but it’s easier to truly buy bargain this way.

Say you check out a site and see a huge markdown on an item you want to get, but then shipping added $6.95. If there was a minimum purchase to get free shipping, you might contemplate whether to get another item to reach that total, or you might even figure the great bargain is not worth it and be on your way. With free shipping, you can periodically quick-hit favorite sites and be ready to pounce if a wonderfully low-priced item pops up — and not worry about adding anything else to your cart to make the shipping cost “worth it.”

Before you hit “order,” look for coupon codes

I’ve never shopped at Kohl’s before, but I got wind of a good Black Friday deal that began today online. I recently got a king-sized bed and the increase in bedding costs that came with it, so “any size, any price” sounds better and better. So this down comforter, regularly $219.99 for $49.99, sounded like a deal worth snatching up.

Before checking out, though, I headed over to Retail Me Not to check if any coupon codes might apply to my order — after all, since I never shop there I don’t get emails with the codes that customers share on these coupon sites. Sure enough, the promo code “thankful” worked to knock an additional 15 percent off the markdown.

Your order won’t self-combust even if you try expired or incorrect codes, so before ordering anywhere online search for the store name and coupon or promo code, and give some of the codes a spin at checkout. Especially on an occasion like Black Friday, try to compound the discounts.

Have a joyous post-Christmas

Seriously, if you’re not going to plan ahead by off-season shopping, can’t you throw a holiday bash a few days after the fact? If you notice the start date of online after-Christmas sales, they’re usually timed so that your package would arrive just after Christmas. For example, last year’s semi-annual sale at Victoria’s Secret began for Angel card holders on Dec. 21.

But let’s think even a bit further down the line. At the end of January, Old Navy takes an additional 50 percent off clearance. This is after everyone has returned the gifts they didn’t want, Christmas overstock didn’t sell, etc. The deals were insane. I had a heaping cart full of stuff — including three lined wool coats, slippers, PJ pants, sweaters, tees, etc. — and paid $60 for it all. There were a few men there piling carts full of clothing for their families (as one guy told me, even if his wife didn’t like one of the tops he picked out for her it only cost a few bucks).

It was like when I bought sweaters for $4 and $8 at the Gap during the Memorial Day clearance — pure cheap shopping bliss. So if you can wait a few days, wait. If you can wait past the rush of people returning stuff starting Dec. 26 and stores keeping prices a bit higher because they know gift-card recipients will be shopping, even better.