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When is a sale really a sale?

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Outlets are another weapon in the clothing discount arsenal. But shopping an outlet doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get a steal. While outlets offer a discount off retail prices, they don't pay the same markups. "Generally, outlet stores are run by vendors," Quan says.

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For instance, say a vendor makes a handbag for $50 and sells it to a regular retail store for $100. The retailer pays that and the shopper will see a price tag of $225.

But at a vendor-owned outlet, you could see that same $225 handbag on sale for 30 percent off. Since there is no retail middleman, the vendor is actually making $107, a profit of more than 200 percent over his cost. While consumers are getting a reduced price, it's not a true 30 percent discount, says Quan.

Shoppers also need to recognize that with outlets, the merchandise many times is subtly different, says Quan. Outlets also offer closeouts, discontinued stock and overruns of varying quality.

To get the best deal, study the product and shop price. Quan had been looking for a particular pair of Timberland shoes and knew the usual selling price. So when he saw them in a small local retail store for $40, half the normal price, he knew that was a bargain. "They're sitting in my closet now," he says.

Discounts on home furnishings
When it comes to furniture, sale signs mean little.

"Phony sales are very prevalent at furniture stores nationwide," says Kimberly Causey, author of "The Insider's Guide to Buying Home Furnishings."

"Some companies price retail so high that nobody charges full retail. Everything is at a discount."

"If you're simply buying the discount, you're missing the whole point and you'll make a bad deal," agrees Len Lewin, author of "Shopping for Furniture: A Consumer's Guide."

And ignore the financing deals. "I find that with most consumers, they buy the financing rather than the furniture," says Howard. "People forget the price of the furniture and focus on the payment."

If you want a particular piece, get the manufacturer's name, the collection name and the item number "to make sure you're comparing apples to apples." Then compare prices at three to five stores minimum, Causey says. And don't be afraid to use the phone to save shoe leather.

"I've seen cases where one retail store was offering 75 percent off and another was offering 40 percent off and [the 40 percent] was less expensive," she says.

Reputable outlets offer some great deals, according to several furniture experts. "If you want the absolute best deal, travel to North Carolina and shop at the factory-owned furniture outlets," says Causey. The savings typically run 65 to 80 percent off retail, she says.

Causey purchased a name-brand armoire that normally sells for $3,600 for $899 (plus $100 for shipping). Shipping costs will depend on a consumer's ZIP code, but as a general rule she figures "about 5 percent of retail."

Want to get an even better deal? Manufacturers display the new designs twice a year (April and October) at the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, N.C. Many outlets hold a sale right before or after the event to make room for new stock, says Causey, who estimates these sales can save buyers an extra 5 percent to 10 percent.

And don't forget the local discount stores. Howard says some of his best furniture buys come from Costco, Sam's Club and BJ's Wholesale Club.

In the final furniture analysis, it doesn't matter how little you pay if it's not a quality product. It's not a deal.

"You just have to know enough about the basics of construction," says Lewin. "Pull the drawers out. Touch it and feel it and look at the finish to know if you're dealing with a good piece. Your eyes will tell you what's good and what's not so good."

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Updated: Nov. 8, 2006
 
 
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