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A Shopping Director’s Guide to, Well, Shopping

Tips for developing a personal style, finding the best deals, and making the most out of what you buy.

Barneys Chelsea
The (new) Barneys in Chelsea.
Photo: Khushbu Shah

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When I was in college, I worked as a sales associate at the Barneys in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, where they used to host the warehouse sale. Twice a year, we would close the regular store, take out all the current merchandise, and replace it with the sale stuff. If you went to it, you remember what a big deal it was. It was where you could feasibly by a pair of designer shoes or a handbag for the price of something at J.Crew.

As employees, we got the best deals. Not because they were offered to us ahead of time, but because we spent the entire first half of the sale hiding the things we wanted to buy — in the rafters, at the bottom of storage closets, in the manager’s office high up on a shelf that no one could reach. The discount was the steepest at the end, and with our employee discount, everything was basically free. I bought a Proenza Schouler PS1 bag for $60, and a pair of Fendi pumps for $50.

My shopping habits have gotten a bit more sophisticated since then. I’ve discovered the brands I like that actually fit me, the stores that are the most exciting, and the time of year to find the sales with the best discounts. But it’s also gotten me into a lot of trouble. As of a few months ago, I owed the equivalent of a 2015 Ford Fiesta in credit card debt. Most of that was from vacations, but a lot of it was from shopping. A pair of shoes I had to have, or a necklace I needed.

I’ve spent the past few months on a (semi) strict budget, but at the end of the day, it’s my job to shop, or at least know what’s worth buying — I write about things for a living (and no, there is no clothing allowance at Racked). I’ve developed a few tricks to keep myself in check and get the most out of the things I do buy. Here they are, in order of importance.

Make a mood board.

Every season, I make a Pinterest board for what I want my overall look to be. Sometimes this means buying new stuff, but sometimes it just means styling the things I already own differently. But honestly, none of that matters. What’s really important here is that the board prevents you from buying anything that doesn’t fit with that particular aesthetic.

My fall look this year was a lot of dark colors and earth tones — rust, mustard, navy — and turtlenecks and jeans. When I would walk through a store, if something didn’t fit with my mood board, it was automatically disqualified as a potential purchase. This kept me from buying shit I would never wear, like the pink metallic pantsuit I considered in earnest last week.

Do not get a store credit card.

Just don’t. You don’t need it, truly. You will always feel more compelled to spend money at a store if you have one of their credit cards, especially if there’s a special discount or promotion for using the card, which there almost always is. The 10% discount you get when you open the card will not save you any money in the long run with those high-as-hell APRs.

Figure out the brands you like.

Every time I walk into COS I think, “Man, I have never felt more understood than when I’m inside COS.” Which is embarrassing but true. This year in particular I’ve really figured out which brands I like, but also what brands work on my body type. This not only took a lot of the guesswork out of shopping, but it also made me feel like I had more of a distinct look or style identity. And now that I know what works, I’m less tempted to wing it on stuff that probably won’t.

Our shopping editor, Cory, smartly uses the “stockists” page on a brand’s website as a mini-discover feature. By seeing who carries the brands she likes, she’s also often introduced into new brands, since those boutiques are likely to stock similar labels.

Track the brands you love, not the stores.

With the exception of cool indie boutiques that have a distinct POV, there’s not really any reason to stay loyal to one particular multi-brand retailer. I love a good department store, but honestly — they’re all the same. And a lot of them carry the same. exact. brands.

If there’s a designer you love, or a specific item you’re looking for, track it down to get the best price. See what retailers are selling it, and keep an eye out for their sales and things like free shipping and good return policies. With the exception of very-limited-edition pieces, you will most likely be able to find whatever you’re looking for at a handful of places, and from there, you can pick the best one.

Save your gift cards for when you have the “shoppies.”

A friend of mine introduced the word “shoppies” to our group chat. It’s a noun, and as you’ve probably already guessed, it’s the feeling you get when you really want to shop. (It’s different from the “spendies,” though; the spendies is when you just want to spend money. It could be on a bottle of wine, or a movie ticket, or a kati roll. The shoppies, on the other hand, is when you really want to buy something to own.)

Save your gift cards for the shoppies. Be honest: How often have you used a gift card immediately, as soon as you received it, just because you had it? Instead, actually sit on them. Wait. Put them somewhere you’re not going to forget about. If you’re determined to buy something, you’re probably going to no matter what. At least this way, you have a bit of free money to take the sting out of it.

Don’t use shopping as therapy.

The office of my actual therapist is right next door to a shoe boutique, and last winter I got into the habit of “just popping in” after appointments. If it was a particularly rough appointment, or I felt like I really put in some work, or had a “breakthrough,” I would flirt with the idea of buying a pair of shoes. And I would. Sometimes two!

I felt like I deserved a treat because I had done the bare minimum of taking care of myself by going to see my therapist. Try really, really hard not to act on that “retail therapy” idea when you feel it — usually it’s not about the thing itself, but rather the process of buying something. Try to identify, if you can, the underlying stress and recognize it for what it is, and what it’s not (permission to buy $200 boots).

Sales associates are not judging you if you don’t buy something.

When I was younger, I used to always think that sales associates in big department stores would judge me if I just walked around without buying anything. Sure, they want you to buy something (especially if they get commission), but there is nothing wrong with browsing, or getting ideas, or just enjoying the walk (I genuinely like to walk around Bergdorfs — it’s real pretty in there!)

This isn’t Pretty Woman, and you don’t have shit to prove. Don’t ever buy something because you feel pressured, or because you think the sales associate will think you’re a loser if you don’t. They’re not thinking that, and if they were, that says a lot more about them than it does you.

Buy things that are well-made, not just things that are expensive.

My coworker Elana put this perfectly when she said that thinking something is going to last longer or be more comfortable because it’s expensive is a huge misconception. I own several Forever 21 sweaters that I bought years ago that are still in great shape. I also own expensive shoes that have fallen apart after one season.

Don’t confuse quality with price. I really believe in brands like Everlane, because I feel like the quality is good and I understand why it costs what it costs. The same goes for Levi’s jeans and Uniqlo jackets. These things don’t cost a fortune, and they last longer than a lot of other stuff.

For example: I LUSTED after the Mansur Gavriel suede slides for months before buying them, and then only had them four months before I needed to have them repaired. To be fair, I wore them to death, and I chalk their short lifespan up to shoes being a new category for the brand, but the point still stands: Whether or not something is “cheap” or “expensive” doesn’t always affect its quality. You gotta try them out and see what’s right for you.

You really never have to pay retail, honest.

There are so many ways to get a deal, no matter where you live. Sign up for store newsletters for the new-customer promo code. Befriend a sales associate and ask them to tell you when a particular thing gets marked down. Shop within days of literally any holiday — Columbus Day, President’s Day — for a special promotion. Go on resale sites. Just wait for things to go on sale, because there’s a really good chance they will. That is the life cycle of retail.

If it’s an item that’s not likely to get a markdown of its own — like a pair of boots a brand makes every season — then wait for one of the places it’s stocked at to have some sort of general markdown, like a flat take-30%-off-storewide deal. Never listen to someone who tells you that something will never go on sale, because unless it’s, like, a Céline bag, it will — one way or another.