Attention Bargain Shoppers!

Eight Rules to Shop By

What with that big holiday coming up at the end of the week—you know, December 26, when prices are slashed all over town—we thought we'd give you our own gift: eight simple rules for mistake-proof shopping in 2004. Follow these directives, and maybe, just maybe, you'll cut down on, if not eradicate, the legion of losers languishing in your closet while you step out in the same two outfits over and over.

1. Never—OK, rarely—pay full price. The strange nature of the capitalist economic system virtually guarantees that an avalanche of merchandise will be left over at the end of every season. (If something sells out, a garmento confided to us recently, it means the company didn't make enough.)

2. Learn to love department stores, including the incomparable Century 21. Sure, boutiques are cuter, but at those cold, sterile department stores you can return almost anything—sometimes months after purchasing!— and not be stuck with the dreaded store credit, or even worse, an item whose tag bears the epithet final sale. And here's another thing you should know: If you chat up the salespeople at fancier stores like Saks, they will put things aside for you before the official sale begins. This bizarre, arcane ritual is called the pre-sale and takes place twice a year (late November and late May). The clerk rings up your heart's desire at the reduced price, but doesn't let you take it home until the sale actually starts—and since you can always return it, what's the risk? (The only reason for pre-sale, it would seem, is that suckers who don't know about it will pay full price while your things wait for you in the stockroom.)

3. Employ the cost-per-wear rule, a dictum we came across when we picked up a copy of Cheap Chic, a bible of smart shopping first published in the '70s. This rule says that before you buy something just because it's marked down to nothing, you should divide the cost of a garment by the number of times you're likely to wear it. Looked at this way, that $29 dress you never wore is a lot more expensive than the $89 skirt you've already worn 89 times.

4. Beware the sample sale: We're tempted to tell you to avoid these altogether, since they usually produce more wardrobe turkeys than any other venue. If you insist on attending these frenzied events, it is imperative that you not let the hysterical atmosphere get the better of you: Be sure to try everything on, even if you have to strip down to your underwear. Bring a trusted friend, or barring that, solicit the opinion of a friendly stranger—after all, she's already seen you in your panties—to find out if the thing you're wearing is on any level flattering.

5. This simple, immutable rule can save you thousands over a lifetime: Look hard in the mirror and say to yourself, "What if I had to wear this tomorrow?" If you don't want to wear it the very next day, don't buy it.

6. Don't purchase anything for the imaginary size you plan to be next month. (In the unlikely event that you lose so much weight that your clothes don't fit you can have them altered.) Also, if you like foreign clothes, remember that people in Europe are way, way smaller than we are, and the fact that you are wearing a size 44 does not make you a disgusting piggie.

7. Seriously consider vintage, especially if you are interested in high-fashion clothes and can't possibly afford them new. Don't just rely on the shops; plan to visit the multi-dealer vintage fashion shows that turn up several times a year. (Check newyorkvintagefashionshow.com and manhattanvintage.com for exact dates.) Just make sure you follow the above rules (try it on, wear it tomorrow, etc.) before you fork over big bucks for an orange-and-purple reindeer sweater.

8. When you're simply dying to purchase something—anything—don't. Stores are like singles bars: Desperation can land you some unfortunate partners. If you feel like you just have to buy or bust, spend $12 on the latest French or Italian Vogue. Yes, it's a lot for a magazine, but it's a small price to pay to be catapulted for an hour or two into a world of almost unbearable glamour. And you won't hate yourself in the morning.

 
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