Department stores have been around for quite some time, and they are experts in getting you to spend. Here are a few tricks to help you keep a bit more cash in your wallet.
Department stores in the U.S. have been helping shoppers part with their money for clothing and accessories since the 1800s. (Lord & Taylor est. 1826; Macy’s est. 1858; Saks Fifth Avenue est. 1867; Bloomingdale’s est. 1872) Instead of visiting small specialty shops and boutiques, these original shoppers were the early adopters of what has come to be known as “one-stop shopping.” Ironically, in today’s economy, the modern department store faces intense competition from individually branded stores, specialty boutiques, and other small businesses as well as from the ecommerce retail market. One way for department stores to try to survive in this new economy is to offer creative rewards and deals to shoppers to lure them away from the temptations of the online world or the charm of the small niche boutique. Their loss is your gain, if you know where to look.
Here are our 11 ways to save money on department store shopping:
1. Shop at department store outlets.
If you have a favorite department store, keep in mind that many of the full-priced stores also have outlets in certain locations. (Some also have online outlets where you can find some of the same savings from the comfort of your couch.) So before you head out, check if there’s an outlet equivalent of your go-to store. (Also, check for general outlet centers. If you are brand agnostic, you may find many brands that service various price points all in one place.)
Here are links to the store locator for some major national department stores that also have outlet stores offering significant savings:
- Bloomingdale’s Outlet
- Saks Off Fifth
- Nordstrom Rack
- Neiman Marcus Last Call
- Macy’s Backstage
- Barneys Warehouse
- Dillard’s Clearance Center Stores
- Off/Aisle by Kohl’s
Just be aware that at many outlet stores, some of the merchandise is from end-of-season clearance from the full-priced store, but some is bought just for the outlet itself, as a way to offer a lower price-point to customers. Certain items may also be discounted because they are marked as imperfect. This could be due to a design flaw, a slight error in manufacturing, or something undetectable to the eye, so don’t let the “imperfect” or “seconds” label scare you away. Even if you can see the imperfection, decide if it’s worth it (or easily fixable). For instance, lounging around at home, going to the gym, or doing activities where the clothes may end up ruined are perfect reasons to buy clothing that’s not “first quality” at a steep discount.
2. Find the best department store coupons to use in-store or online.
Discounted coupons have become so prevalent that you can often feel as though you are being robbed if you are paying full price. Here are some places to look:
- Check the department store’s app or website. Some of these coupons can only be used either in-store or online so read the fine print carefully.
- Take a look at their social media accounts. These may provide links to coupons for upcoming promotions. This works even if you don’t follow those stores.
- Sign up for the department store’s emailed newsletter, which often includes notices of upcoming sales and promotions as well as links or coupon codes you can apply.
- If you have the department store’s branded credit card, you may also have access to certain discounts and promotions that are exclusively for cardholders. Even so, DO NOT apply for the store credit card just to take advantage of these deals (especially if it’s a one-time discount for opening the account). Many other credit cards could have rewards, cash back, points, and sign-up bonuses that are more generous that what you might get from your department store card.
- If you are shopping online at the department store’s site, you can search for the best coupons and promo codes using savings apps like RetailMeNot and Honey.
- Keep coupons that you may receive in the mail (both by direct mail or catalogue). You may also find them in the newspaper.
3. Stack coupon apps on top of the department store coupons.
There are many savings apps that give you cash back and rebates. Some of the cash-back deals can be stacked on top of the coupons and coupon codes you use at check-out.
At Ebates, for example (one of our favorites), you can get cash back at certain department stores for purchases online or, in some cases (such as Lord & Taylor and Macy’s), in-store (although the percentage can be lower by 1-2% for in-store purchases).
Jewel offers cash back rebates at designer or high-end brands and stores. Participating department stores include Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Neiman Marcus Last Call, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Saks Off Fifth.
Dosh offers cash back when you make a purchase through your linked card.
BeFrugal offers cash back when you make a purchase through the app. Participating department stores include Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus, Neiman Marcus Last Call, Nordstrom, Nordstrom Rack, Saks Fifth Avenue, Saks Off Fifth, and JCPenney as well as others.
With Drop, you earn points when you make purchases using your linked card at participating merchants. Redeem your Drop points for gift cards at places like Amazon, Best Buy, Starbucks, and many others.
By using a department store coupon as well as a cash-back or refund app in the same purchase, you can get the benefit of both deals back-to-back. (And if you pay with a cash-back rewards credit card, you get a third bonus.)
4. Take advantage of loyalty programs, rewards points, and “insider programs” if you already have the store’s credit card.
One of the perks of having a department store’s branded credit card (in addition to news of upcoming sales and access to exclusive offers, coupons, and promotions) is the opportunity to benefit from the store’s loyalty program. Some department stores keep track of dollars spent (or a points equivalent) and send you coupons for a percentage discount or a fixed dollar amount off. Some also maintain databases with a secret score called a customer lifetime value (“CLV”). This can determine everything from the discounts targeted to you as well as how fast you receive customer service. Other department stores offer cardholder perks such as discounts during your birthday month. If you have a store credit card, make sure you keep track of these rewards so they don’t go to waste. (Read the fine print; they may have exclusions or time restrictions.)
As noted above, though, you should not take out a store-branded credit card solely to get these perks because other cash-back or rewards cards may have better overall rewards.
5. Take advantage of price drops and sales after you make a purchase.
If you buy an item and then the store lowers the price, some will refund you the difference if you contact them about the price drop in a reasonable amount of time. Some stores may require that you bring the item back to the store (with the tags still on) to take advantage of the lower price. Other stores will apply a credit over the phone to your method of payment for the difference (unless you paid in cash). Keep in mind that different stores have different policies for honoring a price drop (or not), but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
This may work at some stores even if the item has been worn or the tags have been removed, as long as you purchased the item within a short time before the price drop. The store may do this out of the “generosity of their heart” or to generate goodwill, even if the fine print on the receipt says otherwise. Again, it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Two apps that will help automate this are: Paribus and Earny. They will track your online purchases via email and look for price drops. If the app finds potential savings due to a sale or an actual reduction in price, the app will contact the vendor and help you get a refund (in accordance with the store’s policy).
6. Speak up at the register and inquire if there are any other coupons that they can apply to your purchase.
If you are shopping in-store and don’t have any paper or digital coupons with you, ask at the register. Very often, the sales clerks have paper coupons just sitting on the counter (or may tell you where to get them in-store or on your phone). More times than not, the person at the register will be happy to scan these coupons for you and apply the discount to your purchase. The world of retail has moved beyond paper, so if you don’t have that paper or digital coupon with you, the store usually will offer you the benefit of any current coupon or promotion if they can.
Also be aware that salespeople at some stores may have additional authority to provide certain perks. If you shop frequently at one of these stores, try to become acquainted with one salesperson. This person may be much more inclined to provide discounts, alert you to upcoming sales, speak to the manager on your behalf, or throw in extra services like free tailoring or free shipping.
7. Compare the department store prices in-store to the online prices at the same store.
Don’t assume that the price for an item at a department store will be the same in-store and online. If you have a particular item in mind, research it in advance before you decide to buy online or in-store. Sometimes there are coupons or other promotions that will only apply at one or the other. If you mention that something is X-price online or has this discount, sometimes the sales clerk will extend it to you in-store rather than lose the sale. (Financial discounts favor the bold.)
8. If you go with a purpose in mind, it will be easier for you to resist impulse buying.
Go shopping with a purpose and stay focused. Don’t let the spell of deep discounts drain your wallet, however enchanting the offers may be. The “I could use that” or “that will change my life” mindset is where people end up with a closet full of useless things. It’s like New Year’s resolutions, organizing your life, or going to the gym more: you can have great intentions, but sometimes the odds are not in your favor.
Keep your conscious consumerism cap on by having a list in your mind of what you are looking for, then create a maximum price and stick to your plan. Otherwise, you’re as helpless as a hungry person in a grocery store. Department stores carry tons of tempting products, and it’s easy to set out to buy a shirt and then come home with a set of accessories to match. Furthermore, department stores have selling down to a science. They may put lower-priced impulse items near the register or in high-traffic areas (by the front door, the escalator, the main aisles) or popular items in the back to ensure that they have every opportunity to lure you into spending more.
These temptations also apply in ecommerce. Online stores have colorful eye-catching images of other products to tempt you before you check out. “People who bought this also liked . . . .” The pop-ups and sidebar photos can derail you from your best intentions if you’re not careful. Have blinders on when you are loading up your cart. Resist or repent later.
9. Plan ahead and take advantage of end-of-season prices.
Think ahead for your future needs. Did you finally recognize that it’s time to retire your winter coat that, in dog years, would be collecting social security? Dig into the deep discounts that you’ll find at the end of winter or the beginning of spring as stores try to move inventory. (And this is true for any post-seasonal wear.) A personal example was when I was at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, which is near a big outlet complex that included a Patagonia. I had a 4-day hike of Machu Picchu coming up and ended up getting a great pair of hiking boots for very little. They are still holding up for everything from navigating the New York sidewalks on snowy days to all-day hikes upstate. (And, ironically, these Patagonia hiking boots have even found themselves traversing Patagonian glaciers.)
10. Don’t succumb to volume discounts if you really don’t need any more.
“Buy 2, Get 1 Free!”
“Spend $100, get a coupon for 20% off a future purchase. Spend $200, get a coupon for 25% off a future purchase.”
“If you just spend another $20, you’ll get another 10% off.”
How many times do stores try to prompt you into buying more than you set out to buy? Really think about whether you need it (or here in New York, even have room for it). Be firm and only buy what you need. Sure, on paper, a “Buy 2/Get 1 Free!” offer lowers the per-item price, but if you really only need one, then just buy one. Would you rather spend $100 for three shirts (if you only “need” one) or just spend $50 on one shirt?
Your credit-card bill will look a lot better with a $50 charge than with a $100 charge for shirts that you really didn’t want in the first place. However, if you do need them—some of your work shirts are starting to look a little unprofessional— and you can afford them, don’t let us stop you. If it’s a seasonal fad, this may not be the best financial decision. Just be conscientious, and recognize the psychology behind convincing you that the deal is a better buy.
11. Participate in benefit shopping days to help yourself as well as select charities.
Some department stores run specific benefit shopping days to help raise money for charities. The customer typically makes a donation through the store (to non-profit organizations selected by the store) and receives a discount coupon that can be used on purchases either that day or over a certain period of time. Programs like this have the double benefit of helping the customer and the charitable organization at the same time.
Department stores offer the convenience and scale of one-stop-shopping. At the same time, they are facing greater competition from the world of e-commerce, forcing them to tighten their belts and their profit margins. This translates into better deals and deeper discounts for savvy shoppers. Discounts at today’s department stores go beyond just shopping during the off-season. Coupons, sales, and promotions are so ubiquitous that it sometimes feels as though the “full-price” model is becoming a thing of the past. Do your research before you go to the store (or online), and you can find great savings to help you enjoy your new purchase while staying within budget.