A Guide for Making the Most of Liquidation Stores
By Amy Marquez
One of my favorite destinations for happy-cheap shopping is a liquidation store. These places used to be known as “fire-sale stores.” Nowadays, one is able to find a lot of liquidated inventory that is pleasingly smoke-free and available for pennies on the dollar.
Once a season has passed and no one wants to buy a particular type of item anymore, the retailer really can’t just dig a hole and bury all the unsold items. They also don’t want to pay to store inventory for another year on the slight chance that someone might want that item next year. So, they dump everything into huge boxes along with returned, “slightly imperfect,” and “slightly damaged” items and sell tons of what-is-now-liquidated inventory to a liquidation store.
And then people like me get to have some fun.
What brands have I found over the years? Keurig. Fiesta. Caphalon. Calvin Klein. Ralph Lauren. Ann Taylor. Gap. Banana Republic. Liz Claiborne. DeWalt. Gymboree. The Children’s Place. Joe’s Jeans. Paige Denim. Mattel. BCBG. Bandolino. Nine West. Stuart Weitzman. Lennox.
I adore going to work wearing a new cashmere cardigan or pair of wedges; getting a compliment; smugly mentioning, “It only cost $5;” and then getting the stink-eye from co-workers for the rest of the day.
Anyone can learn liquidation shopping. But to truly enjoy and benefit from the experience, one must follow a few guidelines:
GET OVER YOURSELF.
This is probably the most difficult hurdle for people to jump. There is no shame in cheap shopping. Or, there shouldn’t be. It’s fiscal responsibility. All the money you aren’t spending on the mall-store’s mark-up can go to your retirement account or your child’s college fund.
BECOME A DIGGER.
I believe the motto of all liquidation stores should be “Cheap for a Reason” – meaning, they usually aren’t spending a whole heck of a lot of money on typical store overhead, like staff. Or organization. You cannot walk up to a rack of clothes in a liquidation store and expect to find your size right off the bat. If they have the women’s pants separate from the men’s pants, that’s an organized store. Stuff gets placed where it gets placed, regardless of its size or other qualities. You gotta be willing to sift through a whole bunch of nothing before you find a desired something.
It also helps to become savvy about brands. Many higher-end stores will liquidate their inventory as long as the liquidator cuts or marks out the tag that identifies the brand. However, if you know your brands, you ought to be able to spot them based on the fabric type, the design, logos, or even some other detail that you recognize as being unique to a particular brand.
SPEND SOME TIME TO SAVE SOME MONEY.
This means two things. First, when you decide to go to a liquidation store, don’t expect to just run in and run out. If I am planning a trip to one of my favorite places, I usually plan on being there about three hours. It might end up being far less than that, but I want to give myself time to look at all the racks and shelves. Second, plan to stop in once every three or four weeks. Make it a regular part of your shopping plan. Not all liquidation stores will notify you of new arrivals or changes in pricing, so you need to keep an eye out for those things yourself.
MANAGE YOUR RISK.
The other motto for these stores should be “Caveat Emptor – Buyer Beware.” Liquidated items can sit in cardboard boxes in damp storage facilities for a long time before being sold. And many of them were returned. As fun as it is to find a highly-desired item for next to nothing, stay smart. Examine and test the items before buying.
Buying electronics? Liquidation stores usually have a “test table” where you can plug something in to see if it runs. Toys? See if the box has been opened, and try to determine if any parts are missing. Housewares? Look for cracks, chips, missing parts, etc. Something made of fabric (clothes, linens, upholstery, etc.)? Examine it carefully for rips, holes, stains, etc. If the item is something you can and are willing to repair, great (I can sew a seam back together lickety-split). If not, put the item down and move on. And finally, is it something you could wear? Try it on. Many items never sell in their initial locations because they were incorrectly sized. Just because the tag says “Size 8” doesn’t mean that’s what it is.
And this is totally up to you, but I don’t ever buy food items from liquidation stores. I don’t know what conditions something edible may have been stored in and what kind of biological agents might have grown. This is an area of personal choice, and I am, admittedly, weird about food. You know where your line is.
UNDERSTAND THE PRICING SYSTEM.
In other words, don’t assume the price on the liquidation store tag is the price you are supposed to pay. Typically these stores price an item “$X.” But the tag that has that price may have a letter on it, or may be a different color. Some tags even come with QR codes. After a store has had items out on the floor for a while, they will start offering a discount on the discount. For example, all tags with the letter “B” on them are 70 percent of the liquidation price, or all blue-tagged items are “Buy one, get one free.” The pricing rules are usually posted on some sort of large sign prominently displayed on a wall or hanging from the ceiling in the store. If you remain unsure of how the system works, don’t be afraid to ask another customer, they usually love to tell you. This leads me to…
GET TO KNOW OTHER HAPPY-CHEAP SHOPPERS.
Seriously. Diggers recognize other diggers. The enjoyment of digging crosses socio-economic barriers. I have found myself digging next to college students, single mothers, business executives, unemployed laborers, junior league ladies, etc. We all love to dig, and we all love to tell each other about some other awesome digging place we’ve found. It’s an inside-the-store-only community that’s fun to be part of.
The stores I am most familiar with include Treasure Hunt, Dirt Cheap, Half-Off of Half-Off, and Hudson’s, but there are countless more out there so pick one and try out liquidation shopping.
Join us on the cheap side.