When I saw a young guy on the escalator, a large television on his shoulder and a gleam of triumph in his eye, I knew I was where I belonged. This was a sale, and everywhere around me, shoppers were getting deals.
They walked through the store hoisting mattresses above their heads. They staggered under the weight of towels, pillows and quilts. They dragged bags full of coats and boots and underwear. They pounced on sets of dishes, and toasters too. The hunt was on, and the scent of bargains hung heavy in the air.
This was a Columbus Day sale, it was in a New York department store 20 years ago, and for me it has defined "sale" ever since: full of possibility, a rare deal waiting to be bagged in every department.
Since then, department store sales have become regular weekend events. Week after week, they advertise "Our Best Sale" or "One Day Sale" or "Special Sale Hours." As I scanned one of those ads recently, I found myself unexpectedly feeling a sense of loss. Though I still shop sales occasionally and have pangs of doubt that I might be missing out on something when I don't, the air of urgency is gone. I have become sale-weary.
So I took the opportunity of a visit to Manhattan last weekend, the Columbus Day holiday, to return to the scene of that earlier, heady time and think about out how sales have changed. Maybe it wasn't the sales at all. Maybe I was at fault. Was my inner shopper simply sated?
One thing was clear at last weekend's Columbus Day sale: Not a single shopper carried a television on his shoulder. Department stores have long since stopped selling them. I didn't see anyone making off with a mattress, either, though the bedding department remains. Still, the store was plenty busy. The escalators were jammed, the elevators were crammed and impatient lines were forming at the cash registers.
With my daughter, who needed a winter coat, at my side, I shouldered my way upstairs. "Busy?" a beleaguered clerk said. "It's busy every weekend. Sometimes there's so many people you can't walk." Red and white signs sprouted from the racks of coats . . . 25 percent off, 40 percent off, 50 percent off. The clerk offered some advice: If we didn't see what we wanted, wait until Thursday or Friday. Something else would be on sale then.
These constant sales are relatively new, Eugene Fram, professor of marketing at Rochester Institute of Technology, tells me. And they are the result of all the competition aimed at department stores, the specialty stores such as Gap and the Limited, the discount stores like Wal-Mart and Target, the electronics stores such as Best Buy and Circuit City.
"The department stores," Fram says, "have only one competitive promotional weapon with which to respond, a constant barrage of sale merchandise."
That is known as "high-low" pricing, which is the opposite of the "everyday low pricing" employed by Wal-Mart or Target. The middle-range department stores, such as Hecht's and Macy's, have taught their customers to expect sales and even wait for them, Fram says. Others, such as Nordstrom and Saks, have stayed above the fray, offering less-frequent sales and more service. "They cater to upper economic groups," Fram says. "They know their niche."
Through the 1970s, he says, the department stores were the royalty of retailing. "They did everything for the customer. They delivered. They had a wide selection of merchandise in one place," he says. "They offered entertainment -- they would have an Italian fair or a British fair. They offered the public selection they couldn't get elsewhere."
He remembers how his mother, who didn't drive, would go downtown on the bus, where she would meet her friends. She would have lunch in the store's restaurant, buy what she needed and have it delivered. "For many years," Fram says, "the department stores were a social center. Now, women don't do that. Now, more than 60 percent of married women work full or part time."
In 1970, he says, the United States had approximately five square feet of retail space for every person. Now, even as the population has grown, it's running about 20 square feet per capita, about a 300 percent increase in retail square footage, he says. As competition rose, and as the specialty and discount stores expanded, the department stores contracted.
They lost their bargain basements. They dropped the refrigerators and the records. They closed their upscale restaurants. If they delivered, it was by UPS or FedEx, and the customer paid.
Robert A. Robicheaux, professor of marketing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, explains that the ebb and flow of today's sales result from Federal Trade Commission rules, which require a minimum number of days at original price before an item can go on sale. "Without such a rule," he says in an e-mail, "a retailer might advertise that its merchandise was offered for sale (50 percent off) all the time; then the original list or reference price would be meaningless."
Department stores use their slow days, Monday through Wednesday, to sell at the regular price and meet the FTC requirements, Robicheaux says. They'll put the merchandise on sale on their busy days, Thursday through Sunday.
The astute shopper can find opportunity in those sale days, Fram says, taking advantage of the department stores' wider selection while fulfilling other needs as well.
"Everyone loves a bargain," he says. "It's the successful hunt, so to speak. Some people might even talk about a need for conquest. Even people who can afford something more expensive still enjoy talking about the bargain."
Here's Fram's advice for working the sales: Pay attention to the ads. Compare prices. Wait for the sale. And when you see a deal, go for it.
A few days ago, he went to the opening of a new department store in Rochester. With the wind at his back (and a chill in the air) he sailed over to a rack of suede jackets, regular retail price $100, special price $49. He tried the jacket on. He liked the look. He liked the fit, and the feel. He knew from watching the ads that it was a very good price. And he bought it.
"Monday I wore it when I went out to lunch with a friend," he says. "My friend admired the jacket, and I bragged to him that I got it for only $49. 'Do you think they have another one?' he asked."
I know just how Fram felt. Triumphant.
Because last weekend in New York, I found the perfect down coat for my daughter. It was warm, it looked fabulous and, best of all, it was 50 percent off.
Who said anything about the sale-weary? This shopper was on the prowl.