After Christmas Sales Strategies

Econ gurus cited a number of reasons why retailers didn't do as well as expected this holiday season. Some people were forced by high gas prices to cut back on their Christmas spending. Others were smart (or lazy, depending on how you look at it) and decided to buy gift cards instead. Another factor is the timing of Hannukah this year. Either way, gift card recipients, Hannukah shoppers, Kwanzaa shoppers, and people rewarding themselves are cashing in on after Christmas sales, in which retailers are supposedly heavily slashing prices in desperation to match their forecast numbers. However, I went to the mall 2 days before and then 2 days after Christmas and didn't really find that big of a difference in prices. Sure, a few items were much more heavily discounted yesterday (like yummy smelling body butter at Bath and Body Works, now $5 instead of $13), but for the most part, meh.

If you're treating yourself, proceed with caution. You avoided "sales" traps while you were doing Christmas shopping, so don't fall into them now. Don't buy things just because they are on sale, especially if you don't really need them and they'll just sit in some dark corner of your house. I had to tear myself away from the pumpkin spice body butter because I already had several bottles of lotion that will last me for a long time; even if it's "only" $5, it's $5 that could have been spent on better things like gas (which is still over $2/gal X 10 gal/wk = $20/wk). If that doesn't encourage you to avoid the traps, just remember how much of a hit your wallet just took for Christmas presents. For me, it's around $150; it might be more for you. Those 3-digit figures should hopefully chill your rash charge-it impulses.

Before you go shopping for you, make a New Year's resolution. Even if it won't last you that far into the New Year, it does help save you a bit of money; if it does stick, it's a great beginning to a better you. My bad habit is that while the clothes I buy are good and cheap, $5 here, $10 there, and it really adds up. Hence, I resolve that for the next 3 months, I'll buy only what I need or have always wanted if they are supercheap. After that, my monthly allowance for fashion items is $20, allowing for roll-over but no "advanced credit." The resolution forced me to think hard and make a list of things I really need and just a couple of things that I really want. I encourage you to make a similar list for your post-Christmas shopping adventures. What do you really need? What can wait?

The what you want/what can wait list is helpful for the next step: deciding *when* to go buy those items. Right now some stores are pricing things between 50-60% off. Based on my experiences, the 70-75% sales will come in late January. For things that you want but don't need, or things that are too expensive even on sale now, just wait. Face it, if you can't afford it, you're not getting it. Looking good isn't worth a credit card debt especially when there are so many cheaper alternatives (like accessories from Forever 21, H&M, or Target) you can turn to. If it's something you've always wanted AND you know will fly off the shelves AND you have the money for it, pounce now. When you love something you'll wear it a lot, so that makes up for the higher prices. How do you know if it flies off the shelves? Well, if it's a must-have for you, I'm sure you've been to the store (or website) and ogled at it for the longest time, and you know how quickly certain sizes disappear. If there's plenty of your coveted item, there's a greater likelihood that you'll win if you wait for an extra week or 2.

If you're a student, recent grad, or looking to improve/build a wardrobe, there are several timeless "luxury" items that just became affordable. Prices on cashmere sweaters are starting to drop off and will probably fall even lower if you wait. It may be lower still at discount outlets in a few months, but when it comes to cashmere, I prefer to get them at boutique sales instead of outlets because the delicate cashmere may get more snagged and otherwise damaged the more times it changes hands. I've seen some good cashmere sweaters around $50, and one even as low as $30. Another good staple is a good wool coat. They're falling under $100 now, and with global warming hurting sales this year, prices are likely to go down even more. If you live in warm climates, the need for a coat isn't so urgent (unless you plan to travel), so you can wait another month or two. Keep an eye out for websites of Nordstrom's, Macy's, Neiman Marcus, and e-tailers for closeouts. I bought an Anne Klein carcoat this past spring/summer from Classic Closeouts for $30 and have made great use of it these last few weeks. Not the most fitted or the greatest looking, but it does its job and I've gotten so many compliments for it. If they repeat the sale, you can probably score a great deal, too. Finally, if you're into leather, now's a good time too. A good leather blazer or bomber will last you for years. I got a leather blazer from RobMay for $35 about 3 or 4 years ago for $35 instead of $100+. It may not be the greatest quality, but it looked and continues to look great.

A caveat on buying out-of-season items, especially the aforementioned "luxury" ones--make sure that you don't buy crazy colors or cuts that are too trendy, unless you KNOW you'll wear it for years because it fits your personal style. For instance, this year cashmere sweaters were dyed in all kinds of colors and comes in all types of cuts, and some creations were frankly frightening. They may be cheap now, but you aren't going to wear them next year, you're shoving money into a black hole. Personally, I'd go with either cuts and colors that are classic (like crewnecks or cardigans in black, navy, and pastel colors) or something really tastefully avant-garde that will stay interesting year after year. Also, don't buy things in multiple quantities except for basics. This is a default rule to prevent waste in general, but is especially important for trendy stuff.


Post-game Analysis: Lessons from This Year's Christmas Frenzy

Usually I'd get my Christmas shopping done by the end of November, but this year, my heavy courseload and finals really ruined my schedule. I didn't get everything I needed until 2 days before Christmas, and in one case, merely hours before (but it's not all my fault--it's UPS). Still, I'll give myself some credit for finishing in time. Here's a mix of what I did, what I would have done differently, or things I didn't do but might help for next year's Christmas shopping. Not at all useful now, but I feel the need to document this and will re-post them for next Christmas. It might help to keep these in mind for next year's shopping (which starts now with the after-Christmas sales, if you're a year-round shopper like me or still need to get gifts for friends for after-Christmas gift exchanges).

1) In my frenetic rush to finish my shopping, my friend gave me a great reminder: never grab something out of your price range just so you get done. That's how a lot of stores (through pushy sales associates) get you in your frazzled, vulnerable state. You're tired, time is short, and you just want to get done and go home soooo bad. Suddenly those persuasive tones of "he/she'll love it," "this is a really good price" sound very reasonable. However, when it comes to your wallet, be generous to your friends, family, and charities, not to the stores. Be patient, keep yourself psyched by remembering that shopping is a game of sorts; you want to win, and if you stay focused, you'll reap the glories of praises for thoughtful gifts while secretly gloating about how little you spent.

2) If you're going to a mom and pop type of store, engage in shameless haggling. You can't do that for chain stores, and I feel bad about doing this to independent sellers, but mom and pop stores oftentimes sell things for more than chains. Besides, they're running a business, so they aren't stupid and won't sell things to you at a loss unless they had to. Here are 2 examples. The first is what I did that this weekend with my hairdresser (well, not dealing with gifts, but you'll get the idea). She charged me a very low price the last few times I went, even said I was silly for asking her how much on my last trip, but she charged me $5 more this time when I didn't ask. I protested, asking her about what happened to the usual price. I got my usual price. The lesson here is that if you're a usual patron, you have some leverage in getting a lower price in exchange for a long-term business relationship. The second example is what my parents did in finishing their Christmas shopping. You see, haggling is an art nurtured by my family because we've always been poor (hopefully that'll change in the next few years); necessity is a force that obliterates any embarassment I may have in bargaining (my parents have no qualms about it). Last week they went to some random mom and pop store they read about in the newspapers that sold objets d'arts. Some pieces were marked, while others were not, including one beautiful vase. The opening price was $35, but my parents managed to get it down to $25. My mom said that most of the things were made in China and hence cheap, so the store owners really just mark it up to whatever they want and hope people are willing to pay. I think she's right on the money.

3) Be nice. This will be good for your sanity as well as the sanity of people you have to deal with. I had a huge problem with UPS these past few days. Somehow the tracking said "out for delivery," but I found out hours later that it was "out of service range" and will not be redelivered until the 27th. That was unacceptable, so I called in for a will-call pickup that night. I finished the rest of my Christmas shopping, rushed over to the Downtown LA UPS facility, and to my horror, there was a ridiculously long line. As I approached the pedestrian line (there was a long car line as well), there were lots of yelling and cussing by angry customers at the security guard who was checking for names on the list. The security guard system was meant to expedite the process, but angry, yelling people defeats the purpose. Not only is screaming a futile waste of energy (you're not going to get in or get what you want), but you're holding up the rest of the line (pissing off other people), and you're yelling at someone who is just doing his/her job and has no authority to change protocol. You're effectively making his/her job even harder. Besides, you need to preserve your sanity in order to figure out what to do next. I waited in line for an hour only to be told they couldn't locate my package. I knew better than to yell and instead asked what I could do. Even though that didn't work out, at least the next day I was calm and figured out Plan B: calling UPS for the tracking option, explained my situation to a live person, who had someone from the LA center call me. When the LA people called me, I asked to make sure they had the package physically in their hands before I headed over. In the end, I got my package. So if you're in a shipping snag, don't give up! Stay cool, try different options, and it just might work out. If you're nice, people will be more inclined to help you. As much as getting a gift on time will fall in line with the Christmas spirit, the worst that could happen is that your family member or friend will get the gift a day or 2 late. No one is going to die.

4) On the same UPS vein, don't wait till the last minute for online purchases! The huge volume of boxes would overwhelm any shipping company. This year I learned first-hand how many packages UPS handles during the holidays just by the long wait and the number of people standing out in the cold. Aside from UPS, USPS, or FedEx, there's another bottleneck to the shipping time: the e-tailers themselves. Because so many orders come in, the e-tailers won't be able to process them as quickly as they usually can. It took about 4 days between ordering and the time it took to ship out in my case (usually the gap is only a day or 2). If you are busy and can't avoid it (like me), look for free upgrades or cheap/free shipping! Lots of e-tailers this year (like Bluefly) tried to generate more last-minute business by offering either free upgrades to UPS 2nd day, or if it's good ol' regular ground, free or $1 shipping. While cheap shipping isn't going to get your bargains to you any faster, at least you won't have to shell out regular price for something that's probably not going to get here in time. Still, I learned my lesson. Next year, I won't wait until the week before Christmas to have things shipped to me.

5) Always keep a few giftable trinkets around the house, and be prepared to play Grinch. Sometimes you might forget to get gifts for someone, or you decided just minutes before your gift-wrapping session that a particular gift is inadequate. If you're Mr/Ms Forgetful, or if you realized that what you planned to give to Aunt Dottie isn't suitable for her at all, having those extra trinkets around will help you pull together a nice gift package from scratch. There may also be times you when you have take one thing from one gift to make another look more "plump" (a practice otherwise known as "grinching"). In these situations, you can use a trinket or two to try to make that Grinched gift whole again. People will appreciate getting "more" things, even if "more" is just an illusion. There's a third application of trinkets--if you got a small item (like earrings) as a gift, some people might feel you went cheap on them even if the item costs a pretty penny. Again, cheap trinket supplements (like a nice candle and a lotion, just $2 more total) may bulk up the gift considerably, at least to the eye.

6) Buy "rotatable" gifts. I do this every year. When I buy a single gift, I try to have a couple of people in mind so that I can "rotate" things around if needed; there may be times when you suddenly realize that Eliza's gift may be more suitable for Cousin Mabel. This year, I pulled many a switcharoos because I didn't have as much time to think through gift-buying as usual.

7) If you're the ultimate procrastinator, or your gifts were lost or destroyed by forces you can't control, there's always the 24 hour drugstores that are open on Christmas Day. I went to SavOn to pick up some cosmetics and waited in a loooong line, along with people who were there to buy their 12-pack Coronas and Dora the Explorer dolls (taking last-minute shopping quite literally). These days drugstores are quite sophisticated--I've seen digital cameras, DVD players, CD's and DVD's, toys, and tons of other goodies. Still, remember section 1 from above. If you don't want to spend that much, bath sets and manicure kits for the adults are always utilitarian and appropriate, but stay way from junk like aquarium lamps; remember, cheap does not mean cheapo. Inexpensive drugstore gifts can be supplemented with the aforementioned trinkets to look better.


Jonathan Adler Christmas Stuff...

...for $5? Yes, it's true. If you're into designery Christmas stuff, get them before they're gone.

(from final clearance bin at Hold Everything)

Christmas Shopping Saga Part III--LA Apparel Marts

Since this was the last week I can spend time on Christmas shopping at brick-and-mortar locations before my final exams, I decided to go to the Downtown apparel marts again. I brought my friend with me, and we both scored big. During the month of December, many showrooms open for every Friday of the month right up until Christmas (see BargainsLA.com for specifics on designer showrooms of note). The really good sample sales tend to be during this time of the year.

Usually I start with the New Mart, but this time I started with the Cooper Building because the sales I was more interested in were there. I picked up a bit of jewelry from 1 showroom, where my friend bought a $10 Fredricks of Hollywood clutch--perfect for her office holiday party tonight. There were a couple of guys on my shopping list, and guys are always tougher to shop for. The Mon Petit Oiseau showroom took a huge bite out of that problem. I got a couple of cool Charizmatik shirts for $5 each. Never mind that I never heard of the brand before--what I was into was the graphic designs on one of the T-shirts (the other was a nice baseball tee). Finally, the Lily McNeal sale took care of me. Although the Lily McNeal prices and merchandise were good, the prices were still beyond my low budget...I'm not willing to pay more than $15 for a sweater that I don't really need at this time. However, the showroom was also selling a ton of stuff from Development, my favorite label. The dress pants went for $20 and tops for $25. I refuse to pay that much for tops, but I'm willing to invest in pants because it's really difficult to find a pair that fits. After seeing all the wonderful merchandise, my friend is now also in love with Development. She bought a pair of white pants and I bought a pair in a minty green. We absolutely love our purchases.

Even though there weren't many showrooms to hit in the Cooper Building, we spent about 2 hours there. After a quick lunch at the nearby El Pollo Loco, we head over to the New Mart. Usually I find all my cool stuff there, but this trip was absolutely disappointing. Only few showrooms were open and the goods were nothing new, and prices weren't exactly jawdroppingly low for what they were. The only saving graces were the Tarina Tarantino and Gig showrooms. The Tarina Tarantino showroom has great bargains, especially for little hairclips. Things range from $5 to $40. They didn't have quite the super deal on the hairclips this time so I didn't buy more as I had planned to do, but I did pick up a bracelet for myself. The Gig showroom has good lingerie from Calvin Klein, JLO, etc. for a decent price. $5 samples are much better than what's sold at Victoria's Secret at the same price. They had good socks too; I picked up a pair of tights that I've been wanting for winter for $3. However, even that showroom had a significantly less impressive array of samples than a few months ago.

The California Mart was our last stop, since we were tired and most showrooms were closing at that point. We were quite "clothes'd out" by then, so we mainly wandered around looking for non-apparel gifts. We found some really cute stationary and candles for $1-2 each.

All in all, we spent a lot of money, but it was a productive day since we shopped mainly for others and not waste money on ourselves. I'm still not done with Christmas shopping, but at least I took care of a good chunk of it--much better than having to freak out after my finals are done. By then I'll need sleep, not more worries.

Comparison Shopping for Designer Fashions

Lots of price comparison search engines are out there these days, such as Pricegrabber and MySimon. Still, they're no panacea--the stores being compared are limited to some big-name retailers and a few small ones. Lots of e-merchants are missing in the mix, especially for emerging designer fashions. Therefore, it's going to take a lot of work on your part to get the best deal.

If you're complete clueless on where to begin, the first stop should be online fashion editorial sites and hard-copy fashion magazines. They'll point you to some popular e-tailers like Shopbop and GoClothing, where you can start ooh-ing and ahh-ing over some beautiful clothes. Some of those sales bins have pretty good deals. Editorial sites also introduces us to designers we've never heard of but make fabulous clothes (perhaps useful for eBay searches). Another great thing about these sites is that they often have exclusive coupon codes that saves you a pretty penny. However, don't rely solely on publications. Some of them get paid through advertisements or other deals unknown to the public, so there may be a bit of conflict of interest there.

This second step sounds incredulous and time consuming, but here it is: go to Yahoo! and Google directories for shopping>>women's apparel/shoes/whatever else you're looking for. There are tons of stores that the good people at editorial sites may not have heard of, and new stores pop up all the time. Why search through both directories? Well, I've found that while much of the listings overlap, parts of them do not. Go through the listings one by one (you can try looking at 10 a day) and see if you like them. If so, save it under your browser's favorites list. I divided my list into 4 tiers, depending on how good their sales sections are. The ones that have the cheapest and most interesting stuff are in the 1st tier, while stores that have interesting things but are not cheap land at the bottom tier. Additionally, you can categorize them however way you want--by shoes, accessories, etc. It helps to get organized because there are literally hundreds of online stores, and it's easier if you split them up than to start the directory search each time you want to find your favorite store. I check the sales bins of the tier 1 stores much more often then the ones in the bottom tier.

Finally, despite how fabulous search engines are, not all stores are in the directories. Some of these "lost stores" are captured by editorial sites (yet another reason why they're useful), but others fall through the cracks. Once you know who your favorite designers are, do a Google search to find more e-tailers. I remember doing a search for "Louis Verdad" and "sale," which turned up stores that weren't on the Google directory. Again, add the store onto your list if it's even remotely interesting to you. There were times when I didn't bookmark one and regretted it later.

Once you've completed your list, sit tight until you need to buy something. When the time comes, just go compare your bookmarked sites one by one for your potential purchase. That way, you'll only have to sift through 10-30 stores as opposed to 100+, or worse yet, succumb to the high prices of the site you thought was the only place that sells such things. It pays to do your homework.

Well, I have finals for the next few weeks, which means I'll be on hiatus again. Happy shopping!