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'Bargain Fever' Author Reveals the Secrets of Top Shoppers

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Shoppers wait in line for the Hermès sample sale in LA. Photo via <a href="http://la.racked.com/archives/2013/08/23/the_herms_beverly_hills_sale_is_a_glorious_madhouse.php">Racked LA</a>.
Shoppers wait in line for the Hermès sample sale in LA. Photo via Racked LA.

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British-born journalist Mark Ellwood loves a bargain. Schooled in the art of coupon-clipping by his mother, and versed in the ways of retail thanks to stints on the floor of UK's Harrods department store, he eventually moved to New York City and became entranced by the sample sale culture. Ellwood, now a journalist by trade, decided to turn his fascination with the subject into a book named Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World. Out this week, it's at once a history of sale mania, an overview of the tactics stores employ to drive shopper excitement, a look at the rise of outlet malls and a compendium of easy, everyday money-saving tips—basically, a one-stop guide for anyone who enjoys shopping.

Ellwood says his major motivation in writing the book was, as a consumer, bearing witness to the rise of discounting culture. "I thought, if I investigate sales, I'm sure I'll get some good suggestions about how to get sales myself. It was little self-serving," he joked. We spoke to him by phone to get his tips on nabbing the best deals possible.

What did you find about the climate that has led to this discount mania?
"There's never been a better time to be a shopper. Supply and demand has reversed. For a long, long time, there were lots of eager buyers and a fewer number of sellers. What's happened now is, there's too much stuff. Too many people are trying to sell too much stuff to too few buyers. Things go on sale because there's an oversupply and because they're trying to sweet-talk us. And we have to remember that. We hold this power."

What strategies can you share for shoppers that want to make better or more-informed decisions?
"There's three things. One, say to yourself, what do you want. Do you want a pair of shoes, do you want a pair of pants? You don't have to say which ones. When you go to sales, pre-edit. Say to yourself, I'm going to this sale because I need pants. I'm going to ignore everything but the pants. I'm here for the pants. That really is the strategy. Secondly, it's really important to go early. And at sample sales, prices are very flexible. So if you buy enough or you are nice enough—say you're buying three pairs of pants, ask, 'Is there any discount if I buy three or more pairs?' Just being a friendly, nice shopper gets you free stuff."

What about on, say, Black Friday? Should shoppers even go to those events?
"I think people need to look at Black Friday in a much different way. Black Friday is not about bargains, Black Friday is about fun. You should do Black Friday if you're one of the 25% of people who are addicted to bargains. It's fun, it's sport, it's crazy. Are you going to get the best deals of the year? You've got to be kidding. Why would you be getting the best deals of the year? You're getting cheap things. It's not a bargain, it's cheap. But remember, cheap isn't necessarily good value. You are better off going two weeks earlier and asking for a discount."

Is anyone today not discounting?
"There's a retailer in London called John Lewis that's kind of like Nordstrom. John Lewis has thrived in the recession and its motto is, never knowingly undersold. The trust is implicit. A lot of brands these days, their shoppers don't trust them. And that's crazy. The only fashion brand that categorically never discounts is Louis Vuitton. The problem with not discounting is that because everyone feels entitled to a discount today, if you refuse to give your customers a discount they'll find a way to get one. If you can't get a cheap Louis Vuitton handbag legally, you'll get one illegally."

There are whispers that Hermès destroys what doesn't sell rather than offering high-ticket items on a huge discount. You mention in your book a rumor that Chanel takes a boat filled with merchandise out to sea to burn things. Is their any truth to this?
"There are lots of rumors about companies like Chanel and Prada destroying. Do I believe that they destroy some of the stuff at the end of the sample sale? Probably. Did I get anyone to talk on the record about it? You got to be kidding. Did people I trust tell me that distraction was going on? Yeah. What I will tell you is, I think brands would rather make people horrified at the thought of destruction than let people know that things are trickling out for less."

You have some good tips in your book, like when shopping a Last Call Neiman Marcus outlet, the best merchandise can be found at locations closest to full-price Neiman Marcus stores. Do you have any other insider advice?
"Another one of my favorite tips is, if you live anywhere in the Northeast, you should go to the TJ Maxx in Framingham, Massachusetts. It's next to the TJ Maxx HQ and several of my sources at TJ Maxx told me off-the-record—very discreet, it's a brilliant company really—that because it's near the headquarters and the CEO might take a stroll through it, the store is jam-packed with designer goods. The CEO likes seeing upscale stuff there."

Ellwood is offering an incentive to pre-order his book before it debuts on October 17th: a free bonus chapter filled with 100 tips and tricks "on everything from online shopping (try PoachIt - it rocks) to hotel room prices." Forward proof of pre-purchase to bonus@mark-ellwood.com for access.
· Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World [Amazon]