The topic, it seems, of most conversations these days is either gas or inflation. To deal with the latter, it is time for the consumer to start fighting back, by using the system's own weapons to beat it.

Most people know about store coupons and end-of-the-season sales, but there are other means that professional system-beaters use for triumphing over inflation and deficits. Few people have time to devote hours and hours to the pursuit of saving money. These guidelines are for the ordinary person who is busy all day long and has just a few minutes now and then to devote to the project.

The American system of merchandising is based on moving (i.e., selling) products fast. It costs more to store something than to give it away. Be a cooperative shopper. Help retailers get rid of their old merchandise.


Check pull dates. (This is an artificial, often illogical system that requires all merchandise to be sold by certain specified dates. Generally, "day-old" items are perfectly good - it's just out of date by the store's system.) There is always something on the shelf that has an expired pull date.

Day-old meat, of course, is only for those willing to get up at the crack of dawn and grab it. Day-old bread is not in such short supply, so you can arrive pretty much as you please. There's a section or shopping card for day-olds. Check dates and get the newest "used" bread.

Supermarkets are funny places. The bigger the company, the easier it is to play the game and win. A central office of Safeway does much of the buying for all the company's stores in the area, not always taking into account what people in the neighborhood want.

There is the case of the white cheese no one wants at my Safeway: People in my neighborhood don't like white cheese; they buy yellow cheese and pre-wrapped brand-name slices. But every time I go there, I see lots of white cheese. So I give a quick check of the pull dates and without fail I get white (and often yellow) cheese for half-price or less.

Look for damages boxes and slightly dented cans. This is often okay merchandise that no one will buy because it doesn't look pretty. Help the store dispose of this burden and do yourself a favor.

Generally, forget about day-old produce, except for brown, slightly soft bananas, which are fine for baby food, banana nut bread, or banana milkshakes.

Watch the checker like a hask. Many of the best sales shoppers and bargainers lose half their advantage at the checkout stand. Know what everything should cost and make sure the checker rings up the right prices, especially on sale and half-price items.


If you do most of the clothes-shopping for your family, carry around a list of everybody's sizes so that you won't miss out on surprise bargains.

Be aware of what the word "season" means to clothing retailers. Their summer season, for example, starts around three months ahead of the climatic season. The newspaper is your guide to this strange calendar.

Don't buy, however, when the end-of-season sales are first touted. Wait awhile. In fact, wait until the season is really ending, by your calendar. By that time, the retailer is getting desperate. If you've gone browsing through your favorite store a few times previously, you have a good idea of what you want. Generally, the store has too many of them anyway and one or two will be left over for you to snap up.

Every store, be it in Marlow Heights, White Flint Mall or downtown Washington, operates under the same general rules. But remember, you have to know the store to profit from "unadvertised specials," because merchandising and sales policies vary from store to store. The Bladensburg Road Sears, for example, periodically seems to get loads of way-out-of-season children's clothes, probably from other Sears stores. Since I don't face storage and inventory costs, I buy and store for bargain prices. Children's shirts and blouses that regularly cost $8- $10 are frequently available from $1 to $3.

At Woodies, the key is the "Clearance" sign (not to be confused with the "Sale" sign, which is the step immediately preceding the "give-away" program). I bought in April several pairs of lined wool slacks for my teen-age daughters for $5 a pair. They had been marked down four times. My name-brand bathing suit - out of season - was marked down from $25 to $2.

Americans, as I mentioned before, will not buy damaged merchandise, so it is offered for practically nothing. Look for missing buttons, or a seam that is out (defects you easily can repair yourself at home), and then bargain with the department manager. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to bargain in the U.S., not just in a Riyadh or Chichicastenango bazaar.

Sometimes there are special non-defect defects that make the product immovable. For example, I found men's jeans (name-brand) in the $20 range, marked down to $6. They were in perfect condition. But they all had 26-29 inch waistlines, and legs long enough for a 6-footer. Not many men are shaped like that, but lots of young teen girls are. Just cut and hem the legs.


Anyone who has children has to be ready for the unexpected, like 4 o'clock birthday parties announced at 3. For that matter, the unexpected last-minute dinner invitation can catch the adult invitee giftless and frantic. Marvelous bargains on books and toys (children's and adults") and other nice gift-type things should be snapped up whenever, and stored away for the right moment.

The important thing to remember is to buy before you need something. Don't confine your "pre-need" purchases to cemetery lots. Once you really need something, you usually have to pay the full price for it.

Keep a list - mental or written - of what you'll need in the next six months or year. Know what things cost. Become familiar with the merchandising practices of your favorite stores. Explore new stores as well.

Finally, don't forget to bargain with department or store managers. Remember, you are performing a vital service - clearing out their inventory - and not charging a nickel.

Rules of the Game

The 11 commandments:

1. Buy things on sale and in sufficient quantity to hold you until the next sale. (To do this well, you have to know what the real regular price of an item is, not just what it says in the newspaper for that day.)

2. Comparison shop: Don't buy everything at one store and don't stick to a single brand.

3. In grocery stores, buy store brands, since they are usually cheaper and are generally manufactured by the leading brand-name houses anyway.

4. Avoid shopping without a list.

5. Don't buy things you don't really need.

6.Don't grocery-shop on an empty stomach.

7. Avoid "lunch and shopping" with your friends.

8. Keep a shopping budget and stick to it.

9. Buy next year's Christmas presents in January.

10. Anticipate needs, buying before you absolutely must.

11. Have a friend "in the business" get it for you wholesale. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Susan Davis for The Washington Post