Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Real Deal

How to Find the Real Deal During the Holidays

During the holidays, shoppers are bombarded with discounts, reductions, free gifts with purchase, limited time only, steals, deals, and sales. In the craze of specials, it’s easy to lose sight of what qualifies as a good price on a necessary item. What is a bargain? How does a smart shopper remain objective under pressure; how do you conserve money when you need to buy the perfect gift?

Here are some guidelines I’ve gleaned from my favorite vice, shoe shopping:

1) Know what you want when you go in.
Having a solid, specific idea of what you’re looking for allows you to focus in on your gift. Every detail helps: what brands are preferred? How much are you willing to spend? Looking for shoes for a friend, I limited myself to under $100, black, no peep-toes, and work-appropriate- these were her prominent needs. Though I allowed myself wiggle room to fit her personality, having parameters really freed me to narrow the vast options of shoes available, and I wound up with three excellent choices for her, rather than hundreds.

2) Would I have paid full price for this item?
Often a deal seems to be, or is blatantly advertised as, “too good to miss.” These words are enticing, yet deceptive. An easy way to judge for yourself is to ask if you would have paid retail value for the item. If you didn’t want it twenty dollars ago, what’s the new appeal? The person you’re shopping for deserves a present bought for the thought, rather than the cost. If they didn’t need Tommy Hilfiger wedges at $68.99, they won’t love them just because they’re $28.99. If you wouldn’t even consider the item at full price, miss it.

3) Could I admit that this was on sale?
This guideline is also known as “the shame factor,” and it goes hand-in-hand with the previous rule. It’s very simple: when you hand the present over, if you can proudly boast to the recipient, “And they were only $19.99!” then it’s a good deal. Sometimes we don’t want to admit that we spent very little on a gift. If you would be mortified for your gal pal to find a hidden price sticker on the back of the box, then it’s possible you bought the item for the price sticker in the first place, rather than for the pal.

4) Apply the Love/Want/Need test.
The Love/Want/Need test is my personal measurement of how desirable a product is. Loving an item is the first step- for me, a shoe has to be eye-catching and unique, creating an urge to buy on top of an aesthetic appreciation. Next I decide if I want the shoe. Often I adore the concept of a shoe, but I know it isn’t my style or wouldn’t fit in my wardrobe. And third, it’s most rewarding to shop when you can convince yourself that you need the item. Is it practical? Do you have a specific outfit or event already in mind to put the shoe to use? If the item you’re considering passes all three of these tests for you or your friend, it’s guaranteed to be a great gift.

5) Avoid the best of the worst.
Sometimes we shoppers, considering ourselves thrifty, get bogged down in racks and racks of clearance or 75% off. After sorting through handfuls of clothes and shoes we would never buy, an amazing item turns up and you rush to the register! The problem is, after looking at so many unappealing things, the item we found wasn’t amazing, but merely the best in a batch of poor options. The way to avoid buying the best of the worst is to take the item, take a stroll to where the full-priced items are, and place your merchandise among the rest. Now, in comparison, are you still excited by it? If it’s still your favorite piece in a price-blind array, you’ve lucked out on a fantastic deal.

6) Know the product.
You can find out a lot about a sale by asking the right salesperson a few simple questions. How long will the discount apply? If it goes until March rather than ending at Christmas, it might be disguising itself as a holiday sale. Find out the item’s original cost- be wary of fake “actual value” numbers on tags- a salesperson can tell you if the shoe ever sold for $200, or if it’s been “marked down to $99” since it walked in the door. Also, find out if those shoes will be on sale again. In October I passed on a pair of boots because the salesperson admitted they’d be on sale again in January- for further discount.

7) Walk away.
This is wisdom imparted by my father, and I always shop by it. If the sale isn’t ending in 24 hours, look at the item carefully, and then walk away from it. Do other shopping and then come back, or better yet, go home and come back another day. If it’s something you really love, its allure will survive distance. Stores are usually happy to put items on hold for you. If the sale is ending shortly, you can buy the item but leave it in the bag, with the tags on, with the receipt. Wait a few days, and then take it out again and think about what you paid. You can always make a return. But when you can, it’s invaluably constructive to test yourself and leave it behind.

8) Use the internet.
I’m sure this is preaching to the choir, but the internet is the ultimate mall, with the best deals. I can search for the brand and model of the shoes I’m coveting or compare them to similar items by price, size, or color. During the holidays, stores can sell out of popular items, but it’s easy to find whatever you need online. It’s the most diverse source for every style and need; there’s something for everyone. And don’t worry: during the holidays, there’s more free shipping than you can shake a credit card at, so it’s no extra cost. Online stores are on top of getting your purchases shipped on time, and will even help you calculate a send-by date. No hassle, no leg work, no long lines. Just remember: all of the above guidelines still apply!

I hope you have Happy Holidays and a Smart Shopping New Year!

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