Killer Holiday Shopping Tips From the King of Bargains

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Before blowing money unnecessarily in the shopping-crazed days ahead, consider the deal-finding wisdom of Mark Ellwood, author of the new book Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World.

In the Q&A that follows, Ellwood explains, among other things, why he hates shopping on Black Friday, why it’s unwise to be purchasing holiday gifts now, why in today’s retail environment it’s never, ever necessary to pay full price for anything—and why it’s probably even worse to get duped into buying something that’s “on sale” and yet still way overpriced.

Like your book says, we live in a “discounted world,” in which it’s more difficult than ever to tell what’s a bargain because everything is constantly on sale. Which retailers are the worst offenders in terms of posting the most unrealistic high original prices—which seem to exist only so that the discounts can seem more impressive? Can you name some names?
Mark Ellwood: I’ll be happy to name and shame the naughty discount inflaters, though I feel for them, given the pressure of the new retail world. Kohl’s, for instance. A Los Angeles judge ruled in favor of a discount-minded plaintiff who brought a suit against Kohl’s when he found out his suitcase wasn’t exactly the 50% off its $299.99 price tag implied.

But that wasn’t the only, well, case. Poor J.C. Penney committed retail hara kiri by excising sales during the fleeting tenure of its CEO Ron Johnson, who had a snooty disdain for discounts and everyday shoppers that would shame Marie Antoinette. Then when it finally reintroduced the idea of a markdown, the firm was caught padding its promotions to make those discounts look heftier. How did no one at its HQ assume that JCP would be under even greater scrutiny in the few months after his exit?

Frankly, though, were I to nominate a few charter members of the discount Hall of Shame, it would be outlet mall stores – especially those of department store brands. They’re not exactly artificially inflating prices, but these retailers try every legal loophole to muddy what true great value might be. Look at how the hangtag might read “Compare at…” It’s a perfectly acceptable piece of legalese that implies a higher price, but it actually means nothing. That item was probably never sold at regular retail, but simply made specially for the outlet.

(MORE: 5 Ways Retailers Are Trying to Snag Holiday Shopping Dollars Extra Early This Year)

Do you go shopping over Black Friday weekend? Or do you sit it out, or just go online shopping or what?
ME: I’d rather eat nails than brave the mall on Black Friday or Grey Thursday, as Thanksgiving is now creepingly – and creepily – called. Many of the deals on Black Friday are specially bought-in, outlet mall-style, so they’re far from a great find. And anyway, I like to eat my turkey in peace. If I could hire someone like Laurie Black to sit on line for me, maybe. But then I’d have to find an Aladdin’s Cave of deals to offset her fee…

Where are the best bargains to be found, and which “deals” just aren’t worth the time and effort? Any tips to help people avoid getting caught up in the fever of the crowds and spending money foolishly?
ME: Money shortcircuits our brains – we behave irrationally whenever we’re expected to assess our spending. Who hasn’t saved $5 on something and then mentally thought Oooh, that’s $5 I can splurge on a treat, as if we’d magically added new money to our budget? Stress has been shown to affect our rational approach to spending and open our wallets more readily, so it’s a double discount default – essentially, under duress, the calm and mature part of our brains is silenced and we’re more likely to spend unwisely. Simple tip: download some Enya or Bach and mainline it through your headphones if you’re fisticuffing through Black Friday. The calmer you are, the less likely you are to wake up with (bargain) buyer’s remorse.

What are some of the most foolish things you see consumers do year in, year out during the holiday shopping period? And related: Got any good tips for smart holiday shopping, for getting the most bang for your buck at this time of year?
ME: Firstly, one misstep is actually shopping right now. Some of the best deal data shows that mid-October and mid-April are the least discounted times of the year. The latter, because the flushness of tax refunds makes even the most skinflintish splurge, and the former because stores are trying to bank as many full-price sales before the orgy of discounting which Black Friday demands. Close your pocketbook on all but essentials until the end of the month.

Of course, overall, the most foolish behavior is always, frankly, paying full price for anything. Stores are trying to sell too much stuff to too fewer shoppers, and the supply-demand curve has been inverted for the first time. There will forever be a way to find a discount: in a store, ask the sales assistant if there’s a friends & family sale, or maybe if 10% off is offered to anyone who provides an email address (it doesn’t have to be a valid one, does it?).

(MORE: 10 Big Retail Trends from the 2012 Holiday Shopping Season)

Online, try cart abandonment: register for an online store: Log in, place items in your cart and then close the window. This exasperates dotcom stores so much, it will often result in an email reminder to try to close the sale – using a 15-20% discount as a sweetener.

Do you personally partake in showrooming or price-matching or anything?
ME: Here’s my utterly subjective ethical consideration around showrooming. There is something a little grubby about going into a local, mom-and-pop owned corner store and furtively searching for a better deal online. These are upstanding all-American entrepreneurs just trying to stay in business. If we want our neighborhoods to remain distinct, we need to support independent set-ups like these. I buy almost all my books, for example, at a wonderful bookstore McNally Jackson in downtown New York about 30 seconds from my apartment.

With the big guys, though, I’m remorseless. They have the bulk purchasing power to drive prices down. However, I’ve found that often if you ask a sales assistant and brandish that online price, more and more stores will simply match it – see how both Target and Best Buy announced a price match policy earlier this year to stymie showrooming, or how Walmart has its endless aisle policy, which integrates online and brick and mortar including logistics and pricing. Plus, there’s an instant gratification that even Amazon Prime can’t provide.

A large portion of consumers think of shopping as a sport, and these shopping ninjas play the game by constantly monitoring deals and always being ready to pounce on a hot bargain. Another group of consumers focuses on the best quality and buys what they need, when they need it, regardless of whether or not the item is on sale or available at the best price. Which do you think is the smarter approach? Which group has more money in the bank? Which enjoys their “stuff” more?
ME: Wow, that’s three very different questions. But there’s a single answer to all of them, I believe. Here’s the challenge around the latter group, those people who claim to shop less, pay more and buy smarter. I wish it were still true that anything mass market were made to last with an emphasis on quality, but that is rarely the case even among designer brands. Despite an avalanche of marketing to the contrary, built-in obsolescence has become a business tactic, whether electronics intended to be upgraded in a year or a pair of shoes that are only designed to last the few months until their particular heel height has been deemed passé by a plethora of judgmental fashionistas.

(MORE: Holiday Gadget Buying Will Be More Confusing Than Ever: Three Tips to Make Shopping Easier)

Investment purchasing is a cute idea, but it’s a naïve approach more fitting to the 1950s than the 2010s. Since so little of our stuff is intended to be an heirloom, paying pass-it-to-your-grandchild prices is foolish. There is no justification to ever pay full price for anything today, and sadly, not much long-term satisfaction in doing so, either.