Mark Ellwood is exuberant. He’s on a shopping excursion in New York City, and he’s excited because he knows he won’t pay full price for anything.
That’s his shopping credo. Ellwood, 40, is a pro bargain hunter. He’s about to reveal the secrets of how retailers get you to open your wallet and how you can avoid traps and spend less.
But first, a smidgen of science, explained in Ellwood’s perky British accent: The thrill of bargain hunting is biological, he says. When we see a good bargain, our brains react with a burst of dopamine, the chemical that signals the pleasure of a reward.
Armed with a few insider pointers, we can weed out the truly great bargains from the ones that just appear to save us money, Ellwood says. That’s what he writes about in his book Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World, published last month. Ellwood’s main point: There has never been a better time to shop.
“As a shopper, we are the bachelorette, and all the stores are the contestants,” he says. “There’s too many shops and not enough shoppers. The supply-demand curve is completely the wrong way around, and it gives us all the power.”
Ten years ago, he says, retailers sold 15% to 20% of their merchandise at a discount. Now 40% to 45% is sold at a discount.
Bouncing to the beat of the music while on an escalator coming out of Burlington Coat Factory and walking with a slight swagger through stores around Union Square and lower Fifth Avenue, Ellwood dishes on how to find the best discounts and save the most money.
He is dressed in his own bargain finds: a navy topcoat for $126 and a maroon corduroy blazer for $99, both from H&M.
At J.Crew, Ellwood manages to walk out of the store having bought a blue-and-yellow checked button-front shirt that was originally $69.99 for $11.99. He did it by practicing one of his cardinal rules of bargain shopping: Always interact with the store employees.
They’ll often alert you to promotions you didn’t know were happening or offer you a better deal than what’s advertised. Ellwood tested this theory when he walked into the J.Crew store. When he asked if there were any upcoming promotions, an employee said he hadn’t yet heard — but that Ellwood could get 20% off if he signed up for the “very personal stylist” program. Online, the program advertises only free shipping for signing up.
Ellwood does it again while browsing the button-front shirts upstairs. When he notices that they are all marked down at different prices, he asks a saleswoman which price is correct. She tells him he’ll be able to get the lowest markdown plus an additional 40% off. He’s sold.
When it comes to clothes, Ellwood says he never pays full price for anything. If it’s not on sale yet, it will be. Retailers typically discount after six weeks, so when you find something you want that’s not on sale yet, just set your alarm for 42 days later, he says.
More of Ellwood’s must-have shopping knowledge:
• Prices are never set. “The whole point about pricing is none of it is fixed,” Ellwood says. Don’t wait to be told whether there’s a sale, he says. “Ask for promotions and discounts. Sales are hidden in plain sight.”
• Pay attention to the language on price tags. At discount stores like Nordstrom Rack, Burlington Coat Factory and T.J. Maxx, the discounted price is usually listed below an “original” price or “compare at” price. Even when items go on sale at specialty or department stores, the original price will usually be visible. This is called anchor pricing, Ellwood says.
“Suddenly you have a sense of how big that discount is,” he says.
But you may not always be getting a truly great bargain. Phrases like “compare at” or “retail value” on a tag don’t legally guarantee that an item was ever actually sold at that price, Ellwood says.
“When you’re at a discount store, look for a tag that says ‘original price,’” he says. “Everything else might be a good deal, it might not. You don’t know.”
• The rule of threes. At Best Buy, Ellwood points out that nearly every brand’s products are displayed at three price points. It’s a practice called Goldilocks pricing — retailers are trying to get you to go for the middle one. Why? Because that’s the one that will make them the most money.
“We love threes,” he says. “The margins are highest on the middle one because they expect to sell the most” at that price.
So what should you do?
“Buy the cheap one,” he says. “The features aren’t that different.”
•Talk to store employees. As Ellwood demonstrated at J.Crew, engaging with employees works to your advantage. Many of them work on commission and have an incentive to make sure you shop with them.
Don’t be afraid to be upfront about “your intention that you are trying to buy it from them,” he says, and see what kind of deal they offer you.
• Watch the 9s and 0s. Prices that end in a whole number with a zero at the end denote quality in our minds, Ellwood says. Items with prices that end in a 9 are perceived as a good value.
Some stores use both methods. At Uniqlo, an inexpensive Japanese apparel retailer that has a handful of stores in the U.S., the prices often end in 90 cents.
“Its pricing subtly telegraphs that it’s great value and high quality,” Ellwood says.
• Apps can find the best deals online. Ellwood recommends always checking apps like PoachIt — a button you add to your bookmarks page in your Web browser — before going through with an online purchase. When you click the PoachIt button while on a product page, it will tell you whether there are any coupon codes associated with the item, or it will track its price for you and send you an e-mail when it goes on sale.
You can also sign up for the Shop It To Me “Salemail” to be alerted when your favorite brands go on sale, sorted by color and size.
• Practice cart abandonment. When you buy online, make it a two-step process, Ellwood says. Add an item to your cart, then close your browser. Wait a day or two and, depending on the retailer, you’ll likely receive a coupon or promotion e-mail to “tip the purchase,” he says.
One of the best things about bargain shopping, Ellwood says, is that it has become a point of pride.
“A long time ago, getting a discount meant you were poor,” he says. “Now you sit at dinner, and socialites are talking about the best sample sales.”
Paying full price has gone the way of the “retro record shop or dial-up Internet,” he says. “We live in a discounted world. That’s exactly why you should haggle.”
Courtesy of USA Today