Want to learn how to be an effective shopper? In their tell-all book "The Shopping Bag: Tips, Tricks, and Inside Information to Make You a Savvy Shopper," authors Anna Wallner and Kristina Matistic share secrets on how to find the best deals.
No matter what you're looking for, this shopping survival guide will be sure to get you through the long lines and dealing with frustrating sales employees.
Read an excerpt from Wallner and Matistic's book below.
THE SHOPPING BAGS: Tips, Tricks, and Inside Information to Make You a Savvy Shopper
Have you ever had buyer's remorse? Surrendered to an impulse purchase at the mall? Did you shell out big bucks for that antiwrinkle cream only to find your wrinkles stayed put? And remember that pair of designer jeans that stretched all out of shape? (C'mon, 'fess up.) Do you always reach for the same brand-name glass cleaner even though the generic brand is half the price? (And is the glass in your home really so much cleaner as a result?) Don't even get us started on the grocery store, where brilliantly veiled marketing tricks have you at the checkout counter with a cartful of food when all you came in for was a loaf of bread. And what about that video camera you bought just last year? Do you really need the "optical image stabilizer"? (Actually, that is a good thing to have.) Or do you simply wonder if you can get that car, that sofa, the shoes, or the lightbulbs for less?
We can relate. The retail world is complicated - - there are too many options, too much fine print, too many marketing ploys. If you're going to survive out there, you need to study up. You need a shopping encyclopedia. We are The Shopping Bags, and it's our mission to provide you with that reference and to make shopping easier for you.
WHO WE ARE
Several years ago we were just like you: We hated buying a T-shirt only to have it fall apart in the wash. A bad warranty meant we were stuck with a blender that conked out after three milk shakes. Fed up with wasted money and wasted time, we decided to do something drastic. We set out to research everything before we bought it - and never get ripped off again.
We started calling professionals from every walk of life -- aestheticians, race car drivers, doctors, dentists, gardeners, even dog walkers -- to ask questions about the products we buy. After all, who better to tell you which brand of garbage bag is best than a garbage man? And then we started testing the products ourselves -- from lip gloss to lawn furniture to luggage. Soon we had a stockpile of information, things that other shoppers might just want to know about.
Ten o'clock on weekday mornings is the best time to shop -- especially if you're making a return -- as crowds are low.
Many afternoons of shoe shopping and brainstorming later, we came up with the concept for The Shopping Bags. We quit our day jobs as journalists at a local TV station and committed ourselves to researching consumer products and providing shoppers with tips, tricks, and inside information on everything they buy. For the past five years, the results of our findings have been airing on our hit TV show. Then it was time to put pen to paper and give you a fun, fact-filled shopping guide you can carry with you to the store.
Today's shopper is hungry for the information we offer. Yes, we all want to make the right shopping choice -- but no, we don't all want to spend two months researching the matter. (After all, it's only a lightbulb!) With this book, you'll gain the upper hand. You can look up products before you buy them, and see where the pitfalls are. You can have the results of our tests and research right at your fingertips.
As far as we're concerned, shopping is not just a way to get the stuff you need and want; it's also a sport. And we play to win!
WHAT WE DO AND HOW WE DO IT
Basically, we do your homework for you. It's a rigorous five-step process:
Step one involves analyzing the information -- all the information -- on each and every product we cover. Books, articles, lab reports, research data, instructional booklets, and advertising material -- you name it, we sift through it.
Step two involves picking up the phone and dialing up the world's most reputable and well-known experts. We've interviewed fashionistas like Diane von Furstenberg and Lars Nilsson, domestic divas like Martha Stewart, Olympic athletes like Picabo Street, and some of the best-known personalities in the world of cars, gardens, and beauty.
But we go way beyond the bigwigs and celebrities. Step three involves hitting the front lines and grilling the people who use and abuse the products we're investigating. We talk to dog walkers about the personalities of different breeds; we chat with garbage men about which bags really make it to the curb; we question day-care workers about the safest and most user-friendly high chairs; and we spy on hairdressers to see what kinds of hair products they use on themselves.
Step four involves personally testing every product and taking our tests to the extreme. We ride roller coasters to test hair spray, rock-climb to test nail polish, and who can forget the time Anna put the condom over her head to prove that a regular-size rubber can fit most men! Products take over every available closet, counter, and square inch of flooring in our homes. At any one time, we're testing half a dozen different things: exercise gizmos litter the living room; blush, hair mousse, and face moisturizers battle each other for space on the bathroom counter; and jars of peanut butter, cans of tomato sauce, and boxes of frozen pizza squeeze out anything resembling real food in the fridge. It's safe to say we take a hands-on approach to our business. We want to know how each and every product stands up to - well - us! And we want to pass that information on to you.
But we're not done there. Step five involves making sure each product and service suits each person's individual needs and styles. Deciding on the right product depends on your requirements, your desires, and your budget. We arm you with the questions you need to ask and the things you need to look for to determine which makes and models are right for you.
THE TEN SHOPPING COMMANDMENTS
Having logged many hours at the stores, we've learned a few simple truths. We call them the Ten Shopping Commandments -- ten rules we apply to each and every shopping experience. These guidelines help us get what we want, get it for less, and be more informed about the stuff we buy.
Not on sale? Ask for a discount anyway. It doesn't mean you're cheap; it means you understand competition and that retailers are all fighting for your shopping dollar. And remember, bargaining is a way of life in many cities around the globe. Here are some tips for bargaining made easy:
Don't ask for a specific amount, like 10 percent off the price tag, for example. You never know when you're leaving money on the table. Instead, simply say, "Can you give me a better deal?" This gambit also leaves room for the retailer to throw in something extra in lieu of cutting the price. (That is how Kristina got free delivery with her new mattress.)
Give the store a reason to discount. Buying flowers for a dinner party that night? Blooms slightly past their prime will probably do you just fine, and you've got a reason for a discount. Dented can of tuna? Ha!
Take a friend. Many people find bargaining nerve-racking, at least in the beginning. So take a friend along for moral support the first couple of times. Your pal can also pipe in if you're ever at a loss for words.
Be nice. If a salesperson likes you, he or she is more likely to want to give you a discount. (See Commandment #6.)
Be prepared to walk away. Chances are you may be able to nab a better price elsewhere. When a salesman wouldn't give Anna any discount on a two-thousand-dollar computer, she went straight to the manufacturer's store and got it for three hundred dollars less.
You won't succeed in getting a better deal every time, but it never hurts to ask. And once you start saving money and getting free stuff regularly, negotiating will become a habit.
2. MAKE A DATE
Every line of merchandise has an end of season, so get your calendar and jot down our version of an almanac:
January to March: Activewear. New merchandise tends to come in between January and March, so that's the perfect time to get a good deal on last year's styles. Winter clothes also hit the sales rack at this time of year.
May to September: Paint. While some manufacturers put their interior paints and deck stains on sale in time for spring cleaning, the biggest sales and deepest discounts on interior and exterior paints happen on long weekends in the summer -- specifically, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day weekends.
June: Running shoes. Manufacturers are under the gun to come up with new running-shoe models every six months -- so look for sales in the winter, too.
July and August: Clothing sales. Like clockwork, clothes start going on sale the first weekend of July, leaving you lots of summertime left to enjoy your new, low-priced duds.
Winter: Used vehicles generally show their worst characteristics during the winter months, so dealers and private sellers are less hard-nosed about sticking to the list price.
Of course, not every sale corresponds to a particular time of year. Keep a watchful eye on big chain stores. Lots of stock and high turnover mean there will always be sale items available. (Read: Never pay full price for towels or a mattress!)
And finally, know the delivery schedules at your favorite stores - especially big-box stores and plant nurseries. You'll get the most sizes to choose from, the freshest flowers and plants, and the best selection overall. Having the "pick of the litter" means you can buy knowing you didn't miss out on something better.
3. KNOW WHAT YOU NEED
We all want quality. But defining what quality means to each of us has a lot to do with our wants, our needs, our lifestyles, and our pocketbooks. Every toaster will make toast. But how many settings you require and how many you are willing to pay for depends on you. (Do you really need that bagel button?) When matching your requirements to the right product, there are a few things to consider:
Brands. Brand names often do cost more but that isn't always a bad thing. Big manufacturers often have solid reputations and can be more than willing to stand behind their products should something go wrong. Paying for peace of mind can be worth it.
Features. What makes the price of one TV $575, when a similar model costs $750? Added features can double or even triple the price. The trick here is deciding among the features you need, the features you want, and the features you can afford. Take the personal digital assistant, for example. After thinking about how she'd really use it, Kristina turned away from the fancy PDA with the full-color screen and settled on a more basic monochromatic model that cost a hundred dollars less.
Materials and workmanship. The materials used in manufacturing also play a big role in the final price. A lightweight Kevlar kayak is super easy to maneuver through rushing water, but seriously, will that placid country lake you'll be using it on ever rock your boat?
Realistically analyzing what is worth paying for is key to helping you strike a balance between what you yearn for and what your pocketbook can handle.
4. DON'T BE A SUCKER
Time and time again, our tests have shown that there are some types of products that just aren't worth paying more for. If you know what to look for on the label, you can get great alternatives at lower prices for many everyday items.
Antiaging products. Unless you're buying directly from your dermatologist, the antiwrinkle cream in the pretty box may not be any more effective than the stuff at the drugstore. And keep in mind that over-the-counter antiaging products often don't contain high enough concentrations of the active ingredient, be it vitamin C or retinol. For specific ingredient guidelines, look up antiaging products (including cellulite treatments, facial moisturizers, and wrinkle cream) in the encyclopedia section of this book.
Cleaning products. Generic or store-brand window cleaners, all-purpose cleaners, and toilet bowl cleaners all work just as well as brand names. (And vinegar is a great substitute for both glass cleaner and antibacterial products.)
Makeup. Two huge corporations -- Estée Lauder and L'Oréal -- own the vast majority of cosmetics lines. For example, Estée Lauder's lineup includes Aveda, Bobbi Brown, Clinique, MAC, Origins, and the chichi La Mer! This means that the low-end and the high-end lipsticks may very well come from the same factory. Getting the right shade and texture is the more important consideration, and there are great products at both the drugstore and the department store. When shopping at the drugstore, ask to have packages opened so you can test colors and consistency.
Shampoo and conditioner. No silver bullet here -- the active ingredients are essentially the same for all products. The main difference lies in the concentration of the conditioning ingredients (such as panthenol, collagen, and elastin). Again, you can find good products at both the salon and the drugstore. Anna swears by drugstore brands for day to day, but then prefers using salon brands about once a week for deep conditioning and cleaning.
Like fancy packaging or the latest and greatest designers? Believe us, we understand why you do. It's okay to buy expensive things as long as you know why you're spending the big bucks. And if you know what you're paying for, you'll never feel like you've been had.
5. BE A SMARTY-PANTS
When it comes to making those really big purchases, you may have to put in a little extra time. Remember, homework means money in your pocket. Follow these simple guidelines, and you'll wind up knowing more than the average salesperson.
Start here. This book will provide the top things you should consider when making a particular purchase, if we do say so ourselves.
Hit the Web. But tread carefully, shopping sisters! While the Internet can be a gem, some sites are, let's just say, less than accurate. We like to see a fact supported by at least two sources before we believe it. We recommend visiting consumer opinion Web sites where you can find out how others reviewed a certain product. Kristina, for example, never books a hotel without first investigating what others thought of it. Read between the lines, take individual biases into account, and you can uncover a few nuggets of truth.
Don't be shy. Talk to friends and family about what products work for them. And go straight to the experts, as well. Talk to your doctor about health products and to repair people about appliances, and ask them which professional organizations to contact for more information. Your local Better Business Bureau also has the goods on reputable businesses in your area.
Phone ahead. When you've decided on a particular product, let your fingers do the shopping, and do some cost comparisons over the phone. Before you start driving all over town in search of that stereo, call to make sure the store has the product in stock. Think of all the money you'll save on gas and parking!
6. BE NICE
It's a simple rule, but one that can make or break your success at the store: Be nice to salespeople. We expect them to be courteous, efficient, knowledgeable, and to give us a deal. You're more likely to get what you want if you're friendly. This rule also applies to restaurants. Want a place where everybody knows your name? Tip early and tip well!
When service is good, we give
15 percent in restaurants and for beauty services 10 percent to the food delivery guy when he brings around pizza Fifty cents to three dollars for a taxi ride, depending on the distance and whether the cabbie carried your bags and held the door (some cab companies automatically charge extra for bags, so don't make the mistake of paying twice for this) One or two dollars to the bellhop for bringing up your bags One or two dollars a night to the maid at the hotel Twenty dollars to the concierge who has nabbed theater tickets or a coveted reservation (more if he or she has helped you out over several days) Twenty dollars to the paper delivery person at Christmas
But as always, read the fine print, especially in restaurants and hotels. Sometimes gratuity is included -- especially in foreign countries. And when it comes to room service, gratuity and delivery charges are often added to the already astronomical food prices. (Makes us want to go hungry instead!)
Showing your gratitude is also about those little extras (remembering a birthday, a tip at Christmas, and so forth) that make your hairdresser, cleaning lady, or paperboy go the distance. They are working for you, after all, and no one wants to be thought of as a bad boss.
7. KICK THE TIRES
Before you take home any new product, always give it the once-over to make sure all the parts are in place, that there's no damage, and that the entire item is in good working order. We all know this. But we also believe in taking items -- especially big-ticket items -- for a test drive.
No one in her right mind would buy a car without taking it out for a spin, right? That includes calling in a mechanic to look under the hood, and giving the vehicle a very careful examination. (And with a used car, it means checking all the panels, as slightly mismatched paint is often a sign of repairs after an accident.) We apply this same thinking to other purchases. When shopping for furniture, ask if you can take the piece out on loan to see if it fits your space and your tastes. If the retailer won't make these allowances, take your business elsewhere.
Got a sweetie who hates shopping? When you need to make a big purchase, do all your browsing on your own. Narrow your choices down to a few before taking your other half with you to the mall.
With sporting goods, most stores will allow you to demo the tennis racket or the skis before you make the purchase. Again, if they won't accommodate you, move on. Expect to pay a small "demo" or rental fee. If you later decide to purchase that product, the demo fee should be deducted from the purchase price. Get a blister while jogging in those new runners? Take them back. Sporting goods is one area where we find merchants do a good job of standing behind their products.
If we're not satisfied, we'll return pretty much anything. We've returned jeans that didn't stretch as much as the salesperson promised, clothing that didn't wash well, and even beauty products that don't live up to their promises. (Anna's self-tanner wasn't producing a tan!)
8. STAY ON YOUR GAME
A salesperson's job is to sell. When you go to a store for a new snowboard, salespeople will also try to sell you the boots, socks, and perhaps some goggles. Up-selling and impulse buying can happen to the best of us.
We have a little trick that helps us stay on track. Before you go shopping, commit your budget and your requirements to a piece of paper, and put the note in your pocket. If you're feeling pressure to overspend or the desire to give in to temptation, pull out that paper as a reminder. When those numbers stare at you in black-and-white, they have a sobering effect. If you are still feeling pressured, experiencing information overload, or simply are not sure about a purchase, take a break, have a coffee, and clear your head. Time and distance can help you determine if you really want to buy.
Of course, there are times when it really is in your best interest to walk away, especially if you suspect that shady business practices are being used. For example, you see an ad in the paper hawking DVD players for fifty dollars. When you arrive at the store, you're told they sold out hours ago...but there's an even better DVD player in stock, for just twenty-five dollars more. That situation can be a sign of the old "bait and switch," whereby enticing ads are used to lure customers into a store to sell them a more expensive item than the one advertised. Advertising goods on sale with no intention of having enough in stock is a federal offense.
We also advise walking away from extended warranties. Profit margins on them can soar between 70 and 100 percent! And salespeople will take home about 35 to 50 percent of that profit. Only a very small percentage of electronics actually break down before the warranty expires. And repairs can often cost less than the warranty itself. With the notable exception of laptop computers (see page 116), we say take your chances without an extended warranty.
9. KEEP YOUR COOL
Nothing ruins a fun-filled day of shopping like bad service. Like the time we went for dinner at a new hot spot, and the carpaccio was delivered without the olive oil and cheese that the menu had promised. Rather than remove the dish and get the kitchen to fix it, our waitress delivered a block of cheese and a side of oil to the table. If we'd wanted to make our own food, we would have stayed home!
The best way to complain is in person. It's much harder for an establishment to ignore a customer who's staring right at them. Our second choice is a letter, since it creates a paper trail. And regardless of the outcome, writing can be therapeutic. Complaining by phone is not our favorite method. Phones often mean being on hold and getting increasingly frustrated. And voice messages, especially complaints, have a way of not being returned. It's so easy to press that delete button. But many larger companies do have customer complaint lines where representatives will listen to your gripes. In these cases, we recommend using the service as a starting point. When making a consumer complaint, here are a few other tips to keep in mind:
Stay calm. We know you have a fabulous list of expletives you're just dying to blurt out -- we've been there. The key to effective complaining is to show respect and to communicate effectively. And if you can, start your complaint with a compliment. You want to win this person over.
Be clear about what you want. Do you want a refund? A replacement? An apology? The only way to get what you want in life is to ask for it.
Talk to the right person. You'd like a manager, preferably. If the clerk wants to try to help first, let him. If you're complaining by letter or e mail, phone ahead, get the name and title of the manager or head of customer service, and address your correspondence to that person specifically.
Be prompt. Retailers and service providers are much more likely to respond to your complaint if it's made immediately (provided you can keep your cool) or within a few days of the incident. A prompt reaction to the alleged shopping crime shows you are serious about getting the issue resolved. You're also more likely to remember all the details if you act right away.
Small or petite physique? Head to the juniors department when shopping for clothes. The duds there are cheaper, and it's a great place to search for basics such as T shirts and the like.
If your efforts to settle a dispute go unheard or if you're unsatisfied with the response you get, your next step should be to contact your local Better Business Bureau. If the business or service belongs to a professional association, you can also lodge a complaint through that group.
Like negotiating, lodging a complaint is an empowering part of the shopping experience. Remember that retail is an increasingly competitive business. If you don't get what you want at one establishment, chances are good you'll get it somewhere else. And regardless of whether your complaint is well received, the whole exercise of communicating your concerns will leave you feeling more satisfied.
10. WEAR COMFORTABLE CLOTHES
Serious shoppers do not hit the stores wearing heels and a miniskirt. (Unless you're shopping for a man, we suppose.) For a day of pounding the pavement, you'll need to wear flat shoes and layers and carry a bag large enough to tote your lightweight jacket and your purchases. Also bring along water and snacks. Treat shopping like an endurance sport: You need proper sustenance and the right gear if you're going to go the distance. Perhaps this is an excuse to go shopping for flat shoes and a shopping bag!
Now it's time to check your shopping list. Are you in the market for a new party dress? Need some running shoes, red wine, a kayak, dish detergent, a baby crib, or a blender? The following pages contain the top tips to help you get the most for your money. Smart shopping doesn't always mean buying the cheapest item, and we all know by now that it doesn't mean buying the most expensive product either. Spotting quality begins with educating yourself. So read up before you hit the store, or take this guide along on your shopping expeditions. The alphabetical entries in each category make it easy to find the products you're shopping for and flip to the relevant page.