- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Knowing what to buy when can save you money. Most consumers know, for example, that retailers typically put their linens and cookware on sale in January, just as their post-holiday business starts to flag. But there are other seasonal shopping bargains to be had by careful consumers, such as spring fashion markdowns in April, back-to-school promotions in July and August, and prewinter sales of coats, gloves and scarves in October.

“There are a lot of advantages to consumers who buy items when they’re traditionally on sale,” said Ellie Kay, author of “Shop, Save and Share” and other financial self-help books. “For example, you typically save 15 percent to 50 percent by shopping a January ‘white sale.’”

Miss Kay suspects, however, that most consumers buy what they want when they want it, “which helps explain why there’s so much consumer debt.”

Her suggestion: “By modifying just a few shopping strategies, you can save your family a lot of money and reduce your debt load — and shopping seasonal sales is one way to do this.”

Daniel Butler, vice president for merchandising and retail operations at the National Retail Federation trade group in Washington, said seasonal sales traditions evolved in part to accommodate consumer desires.

Families tend to buy a lot of clothing and toys as holiday gifts. “So home merchandise sales became popular in January and February, when people turn their focus to their homes and living environment,” he said.

Another trend, he said, is consumers’ desire to redecorate for the seasons, perhaps using different towels and bed linens in spring than in the fall and winter. So some stores schedule two white sales each year.

The month of May traditionally has been associated with Mother’s Day and the promotion of items for women, Mr. Butler said.

But it’s also a good time to stock up on wedding gifts ahead of the summer marriage season. He said many stores repeat wedding gift promotions in late summer and early fall, ahead of the fall marriage season.

“During those peak times, retailers bring in new products,” Mr. Butler said. “Some can be special purchases that make good gifts like bed trays, sets of four plates or sets of glasses.”

Although many retailers may appear to have merchandise on sale year-round, the best discounts generally are in the end-of-season clearance sales, Mr. Butler said. Fall and winter merchandise tends to go on sale in January, spring and summer goods go into clearance in June and July.

“Retailers want to clear out inventory to keep stores looking fresh and current,” he said. “If you don’t sell what you’ve got, the store will look stale.”

C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, a consumer-research and business-development firm in Charleston, S.C., said the main goal of sales is to keep consumers coming into the stores throughout the year.

“Fifty or 60 years ago, merchants tried different things, like holiday sales, but there weren’t holidays in all 12 months. So what to do in March?” he said. “Retailers then adopted EOM sales — end of the month sales — in those months when there was no holiday.

“Over time, different months became identified with different categories.”

Take furniture. Families, he said, think about buying new chairs and sofas in the fall as they begin getting ready for the winter holidays, so “starting Labor Day weekend, furniture sales jump dramatically.”

And to no one’s surprise, the sale of school clothes and supplies are strong in July and August.

Consumers also can benefit from local traditions, Mr. Beemer added.

“Some retailers have an anniversary sale every year, and consumers know that’s the best time to buy so they’ll wait for the anniversary sales,” Mr. Beemer said.

Miss Kay, the consumer shopping expert, said families that shop sales still need to watch what they’re doing.

“An item marked as on sale it not necessarily a good deal,” she said. “Consumers need to do their homework — comparison shop, check the Web — to know if the price is right.”

And, she added: “Buying an item on sale isn’t a good deal at all if you don’t need it.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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