May 16, 2009 -- Ready to start shopping now that glimmers of hope are dotting the economic horizon? Nervous about spending too much, lest those glimmers turn to darkness? Think about timing your purchases.
There is a best time to buy in America: January and February for cars; May and December for designer duds.
Consumer confidence is inching up. According to the Conference Board's monthly survey, based on a representative sample of 5,000 U.S. households, it hit 19.2 out of a possible 100 points in April, rising from 16.9 in March.
Consumers should consider other shopping tricks. The earlier an airline ticket is booked, for example, the less expensive it's likely to be. True, some lucky travelers find last-minute deals, but experts recommend purchasing air tickets at least 14 days in advance.
What about other categories of goods? Electronics are least expensive from the last week in October through December. That's the time of year retailers clear shelves to make space for new inventory, according to Daniel de Grandpre, CEO of Deal News, an online aggregator of retail discounts. Gadgets also get marked down when a new model is introduced. For example, after Apple releases its new iPods each September, the previous version is discounted by up to 50%.
Designer clothing mark-downs are a bit more complicated. Late July and early January offer the most drastic reductions, sometimes up to 90% off original prices, though those massive markdowns often mean choosing from scraps, not treasures.
Stylist Allison Berlin, founder of New York personal shopping service Style Made Simple, suggests shopping the spring collections around Memorial Day and fall ready-to-wear in early December, where you'll find current-season pieces marked down by at least 40%. This spring, those sales will arrive even earlier.
Right now, Manhattan retailer Bergdorf Goodman is offering up to 40% off many of its contemporary collections, including Marc by Marc Jacobs, M Missoni and Nanette Lepore. "If you wait until late July, there will be slim pickings," says Berlin.
What about life-enhancing luxuries, like gym memberships? Waiting until the end of the summer may be a smart idea if you're looking to join a health club. Joe Moore, CEO of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, headquartered in Boston, says those on a budget might want to delay until at least July, if not August or September. The late summer months are traditionally fire-sale season for fitness centers, which see a decline in membership when it's warm enough to exercise outside.
But Moore says 2009 is proving to be an exception to the rule: The recession has caused gyms to start discounting earlier than usual, offering incentives such as the waiving of contracts and initiation fees and reduced monthly rates. In April, Equinox, a ritzy gym with locations across the U.S., offered prospective members one month free and a $300 gift card. This month, it's offering 50% off regular monthly rates.
What's happening in gyms is true in many categories, from real estate to fine jewelry. There are deals out there that consumers may never see again. Traditional sale periods will always offer significant mark-downs. But if you're fortunate enough to be able to shop right now, 2009 is certainly a buyer's market.