Sales, discounts, coupons mean less buys more

Savings: A self-taught specialist from Essex has tips for shrewd holiday shopping.

December 14, 2004|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

This might be the season for giving, but that doesn't mean you have to give till it hurts.

Take it from someone who knows: Denise Laumann, aka the "Coupon Lady" and a beacon of light for shoppers feeling snowed under by the blizzard of festive spending.

Consider the tie Laumann had been eyeing at Hecht's in White Marsh Mall but had bypassed because of its price, $37.50. This weekend, she was delighted to find it at 65 percent off. A bargain by most standards, but Laumann wasn't done. She whipped out a 15 percent off coupon that she had cut out of the newspaper that morning and, voila - $11.16 plus tax.

"I would never pay $37 for a tie, but I like giving someone a $37 tie," said Laumann, 47. "Everyone who knows me knows that my gifts are inexpensive but that a lot of time and thought has gone into it.

"I call it an adventure in savings," Laumann, a waitress who lives in Essex, said happily.

It's that sort of mentality that has significantly changed holiday shopping in recent years, retail experts say, as shoppers wait later and later to buy, holding out for last-minute discounts.

Even as consumers search for the perfect but pennywise present, retailers count on profits of holiday shopping to boost their annual revenue by more than a third.

Those two opposing forces are either going to give thrifty shoppers a shock this season, experts warn, or induce holiday heartburn for retailers.

"This is going to be a big game of chicken," said Britt Beemer, founder of America's Research Group, a Charleston, S.C., marketing firm that studies consumer behavior. "Who is going to blink first? The problem is, 50 percent off sales mean retailers don't make any money. Retailers are trying to retrain consumers so that they won't wait for those big holiday sales. They want consumers to get excited about 30 to 40 percent off sales."

Although 50 percent and higher markdowns such as Laumann found are out there, Beemer said, those deeper discounts are likely only for selected or last-season merchandise. A particular brand of jewelry might be on sale to lure shoppers into a store, but once there, consumers will find the sale doesn't apply to all jewelry.

That's how Leslie Wise of Middle River ended up with a pair of Timberlands for herself and a shirt and sweater for her husband. She came for a pair of dress shoes advertised on sale - but she didn't find the shoes.

Nevertheless, Wise said, "I've done pretty well this season. I try not ever to spend full price."

While holiday spending is expected to hit almost $220 billion this year, a 4.5 percent increase over last year, according to the National Retail Federation, procrastinators might have to settle on buying a fallback present on someone's wish list, experts say.

A grim economy and sluggish job market in the summer - a time when many shops order their holiday merchandise - caused many cautious retailers to scale back on their inventory. That translates into slimmer pickings for holiday shoppers, especially those who are waiting until the last minute.

"If you see that blouse in that shade of green that's to-die-for, you should get it now," says Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Consulting Group in Upper Montclair, N.J. "Because next time you come back, you might see the blouse only in that awful shade of pink you wouldn't wear to your own funeral.

"If you wait for the last sale this season, you may be very disappointed. It's going to be very hard to be a bargain shopper."

Only if you're an amateur, said Laumann. For her, such warnings are merely a challenge.

"This time of year, there are Friday and Saturday sales, Wednesday sales and pre-holiday sales," said Laumann, who says she hasn't paid full price for a single thing since the $225 wedding dress she bought 21 years ago. "No matter when you're out, you'll find a sale.

"Throw a coupon on top," she said, "and it's about buying something for almost nothing."

Laumann experienced her first savings high as a kid when she shopped with her mother and aunt at the Hutzler's, Hochschild-Kohn and Hecht's stores once located downtown. Grousing about being limited to shopping the sales racks, the young Laumann said she changed her tune when they went home and calculated the dollars upon dollars saved on coats, blouses and shoes.

Over the years, she picked up her own handy tips for saving, which Laumann now shares with more than 100 clients who e-mail her at thecouponlady @lycos.com.

"It's not being cheap," Laumann says. "It's being thrifty. You're spending $10 on something that cost $50. You're getting more for less."

In no way does this mean you Scrooge friends, family, co-workers or significant others on your gift list, Laumann says. Nor does it mean you should forfeit quality to save a buck. Instead, she said, just never, ever pay full price - not when there are holiday deals, Internet markdowns and coupons for the taking.

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