Arm yourself with pricing infoStores serving America's middle class typically choose one of two business models, Heathman says. Either they offer good everyday pricing on most items, which encourages consumers to shop more broadly and assume all items are a good deal, which isn't necessarily true or they run nearly constant sales that get bargain hunters excited, even if the bargain is an illusion. Big-box, discount retailers fall into the first category; many department stores and most jewelry stores fall into the second.
The trick to shopping at everyday value stores is knowing how much things cost. Then, you might buy most of what you need at one place, rather than burning time and gas chasing down bargains.
Stores built on a more promotional strategy take a different approach. They don't expect to sell most items at full price. The pricing structure gives the illusion of a bargain when in fact the sale price is actually what they intended to sell the item at all along and still be able to make a profit. Coats, for example, rarely sell at full price.
The same is true for private label or designer brands sold exclusively at low- or midlevel stores. If you see a line from a big name like Liz Claiborne or Vera Wang at an average department store, it's manufactured to be less expensive from the get-go. You are not buying the same nearly couture designer items sold at high-end stores.
So, never buy anything for full price at stores like this. And know that most sale prices at or below 50 percent are more likely the true regular price for those items and perhaps no bargain at all.
Clip coupons for better dealsManufacturers often drive coupon offers, especially in the grocery market. They decide what goes on sale when and for how much. "Some would call it a partnership. Some would call it adversarial," says Heathman, "but there is a relationship."
Manufacturers buy coupon space in the Sunday circulars and pay the retailer the difference in price. But they have to pay stores only when coupons get redeemed. That's why coupon deals are often better than other kinds of sales. Not everyone uses them.
Many people ignore, lose or forget to use coupons. Even if you love coupons, maybe that $3 off isn't worth the time to drive home to fetch the forgotten coupon, so you buy the item anyway. That coupon still got you in the door, so the store wins.
Look for quality, good valuesProducts that cost more spawn greater consideration and comparison shopping, Heathman says, so you are far less likely to find drastic price differences or huge markdowns on something like appliances compared with everyday items that cost much less but get purchased more frequently by more people.
Certain high-profile or luxury items value what's known as "brand equity" over big bumps in total sales. Heathman says the prices are set high purposefully to maintain the prestige of a brand's reputation. Certain fashion brands, especially purses, and some electronics brands use this model. Unless something is from last season or has been replaced by a new version of the same thing, you'll never find them on sale.
The other side of this no-sale philosophy is that some retailers sell great quality items for what they are truly worth, says Switanowski-Barrett. If you want something that never goes on sale, look at how the retailer stands behind products, she says. If they guarantee something for life, then even if the price seems high on an individual item, the service and support may make the cost worth it.
The truth is that a good buy involves an item you need at a price that makes you feel good. It simply helps to know that sometimes retailers fool you into feeling better than you should.