You see the bright yellow signs — “Going Out of Business,” “Everything Must Go,” “Discounts up to 75%.” Another retailer is closing its doors. In just the past few months, we’ve said goodbye to Gymboree, Dressbarn, Payless ShoeSource and Performance Bicycle. And last year’s demise of Toys R Us left many parents in mourning.
Though I hate to see any retailer shutter, I can get a bit giddy over the prospect of shopping a going-out-of-business sale. Savvy consumers can nab terrific deals on merchandise that otherwise might never be in their price range.
“It’s really about finding items or brands that don’t normally go on sale, such as household staples or high-ticket items — TVs, computers, electronics — at a steep discount,” says Bryan K. Chavez, my colleague at the website Living on the Cheap, who regularly shops store closings.
Still, just because a store is going out of business doesn’t mean you’re getting the best savings — or any savings. The word “liquidation” simply means converting assets into cash.
“During a liquidation sale, a store isn’t required to discount merchandise,” says Bryan Routledge, associate professor of finance at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “Even when a retailer is closing, it is still trying to maximize profits by selling their product for what they can get, either to the consumer or to another business. Typically, as shelves become bare and the sale becomes less of an experience, a retailer will lower prices to draw people in.”
Going-out-of-business sales, therefore, present opportunities and pitfalls. Whether you are a closeout newbie or veteran bargain hunter, here’s what you need to know.
Determine the discount drop and sale end dates. Knowing a closing date may help you gauge when prices are likely to drop. “From my experience, closeout sales usually last four to six weeks,” Chavez says. He often chats up employees, asking about their future employment plans and the store’s last day. If that doesn’t work, he calls the store each morning to find out that day’s discount. You’ll also want to find out the last day you can use a store gift card and/or coupons.
For the best deals, be willing to take a chance. Closeout sales are a bit like a game of chicken. Initial discounts may not be deep enough to warrant a purchase, but shelves may be fully stocked. As the sale goes on, discounts deepen, but there may be less merchandise available. Chavez doesn’t start shopping until the discount reaches 50 percent or more. Die-hards may wait until discounts are between 75 to 90 percent.
Know what you are buying. All the information in the world is in the palm of your hand, says Katherine Hutt, a national spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau. If you don’t regularly shop that retailer and know the product and pricing, she says, use your smartphone to see what a specific product is selling for at other retailers. “You should have a good idea of what is and isn’t a deal.”
Take a bargain buddy. When Chavez shops closeouts with his mom, he’ll go one way and she’ll go the other. Then they’ll meet up and sort through their finds. “It’s a way to cover more ground, especially at a large retailer. We look for each other and ourselves, and then after comparing carts put back what we don’t want,” he says.
Resist the impulse buy. We all know the adrenaline rush of finding a good deal. But don’t let it cloud your judgment. The trick is to hit pause and determine whether you need a cart full of discounted shampoo. Keep your budget in mind. “It’s easy to fill your cart and realize you spent $200 on things you don’t want or need,” says Chavez, who acknowledges he once bought about four dozen pacifiers because they were 9 cents each, even though he didn’t have children or space to store the items. (He ended up donating them to charity.)
Prepare to do some digging . . . literally. This is no time to be shy. Going-out-of-business sales tend be chaotic at the start and in the closing days. As you make your way through the store, be prepared to look at top and bottom (and sometimes under) shelves, dig into bins, pick through piles, venture into unfamiliar departments, and even open drawers. Chavez once saw a woman walk in and open a drawer under a rack of greeting cards where she had hidden some table fans in anticipation of a significant price drop. You never know what you may find squirreled away.
Examine price tags. While most closeout sales are on the up and up, there are the occasional practices that, though they’re legal, won’t score you a true deal. Some stores sell their inventory to a third-party liquidator who oversees the actual closing sale. Liquidators may base discounts on the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, which often is higher than what stores originally charged. Look for new price stickers over old price tags or bar codes. If you see lots of items with new stickers, odds are you are dealing with merchandise that has been marked up before sale. Legitimate retailers follow the BBB Code of Advertising, which covers savings claims and closing sales. If you see something questionable, you can report it to the BBB at BBB.org/ad-truth.
Remember, all sales are final. This is no time to experiment with unfamiliar products or brands, unless you don’t care that you might buy a case of deodorant that gives you a rash. Be especially careful with large-ticket items. Says Hutt: “Though an appliance may come with its own manufacturer’s warranty, if anything goes wrong or you need a replacement part, you may have a hard time getting the repair done.”
Liquidation sales are well worth your time if you have an idea of what you want, pay attention to prices, take the time to shop smart and are willing to play the game. I asked Chavez about the best deal he ever scored. His reply: “An $80 bottle of Jean Paul Gaultier cologne for $8. Hey, I’m a cheapskate, but I want to smell good.”