Survival Strategies for Discount Shopping

Fall leaves arched above us in a golden canopy as we tromped down the mountain on a perfect October day. Our minds, loosened from the stress of daily life, turned to ponder deeper issues. Politics, love, the human condition, and how to shop at a discount store without completely losing your sauce and melting down like a child.

“I know you can find some great deals in there,” Lynette said. “I just get so overwhelmed.”

It is a little scary looking.

While I don’t have answers for most of the questions posed that day, I do feel qualified to speak on the topic of TJ Maxx. Because I’ve become a bit of a ninja when it comes to discount shopping.

Hunter boots, Max summer blouses, Lucky Brand jeans, an incredible $384 Nicole Miller cocktail dress for $60, a no-name maxi dress for $10 that I have worn regularly for 9 straight summers; these are just a few of the items I have scored at TJ Maxx, Nordstrom Rack and other discount retailers. I go to these stores in hopes of finding a few trendy pieces to enliven a basic wardrobe, and maybe find a high quality piece that would otherwise be out of my budget.

I think I may have cracked the code.

But it’s not like I walked in one afternoon, picked them all up and got home in an hour. And this list of great finds is a lot shorter than the list of items I bought, then returned, at discount retailers because I got over excited and made bad decisions on the spur of the moment.

Similar to second hand shopping, but with more snares and a larger potential impact on your wallet and the environment, these stores can be tricky. Here are a few rules I use to keep myself on the straight and narrow:

Know what you’re buying

Where do they get all this stuff, anyway? TJ Maxx purchases past season deadstock, cancelled orders prepared for other stores, overstock, and merchandise not originally made for the American market. Nordstrom Rack stocks items that didn’t sell in the regular Nordstrom stores, but also orders goods specifically for the Rack.

So they’re like my Grandma’s Last of the Garden Relish; some stuff’s fresh, some stuff’s a little past it’s prime but it’s all good after sitting for a month in a little vinegar and salt.

This zipper pocket camel coat didn’t sell well the first time around, but there’s a lady out there who could rock this.

Part of the success of these retailers is the speedy inventory turnover. TJ Maxx boasts new shipments daily, and they have a “door to floor” policy that results in new merchandise on display throughout the day.

Get to know their strengths

Before choosing a discount retailer as a serious destination to meet your wardrobe needs, get to know their strengths and weaknesses. In Eugene, OR, the TJ Maxx has excellent luggage. Nordstrom Rack has great shoes. Our DSW has a fun sneaker collection, but I rarely find classic boots there. Explore the stores, then go when you need something they do well.

I can’t justify one more piece of luggage.

Never shop in the middle of a Saturday afternoon

Discount stores are often crowded and picked over by 3:00 on a Saturday. And because sale associates are busy helping customers, new merch isn’t being shuffled to the floor. Tuesday and Wednesday mornings are the best time to shop, as new goods are still flowing in and items that did not sell over the weekend are further marked down. Saturday and Sunday mornings can be good for a quick trip. Mid-week evenings aren’t too bad. Basically, the fewer people shopping, the more time sale associates will have to put out new items and discount older ones. Plus it doesn’t feel like some hideous, inhumane 19th century zoo.

Smith Rock is a much better destination for Saturday afternoon.

Narrow your search

In a store that holds everything from novelty napkin rings to infinity scarves, you can get sapped of energy and time pretty quickly.

Completely overwhelming.

Choosing one or two areas of focus can be really helpful. Make a plan to shop for pants and tops, or shoes and pillow cases, or whatever. Don’t try to cover the entire store.

Not overwhelming at all.

Don’t panic

When I stopped by Nordstrom Rack to take pictures for this article, this is the sight that greeted me.

At least 50 pairs of Frye boots, all discounter over 50%. I think my hands were shaking.

You may imagine my reaction. I approached the boots with as much restraint as possible. It wasn’t pretty. When I finally surfaced for air after tearing through the boxes I was miserably disappointed. No size 6.5.

I reminded myself why I was there in the first place (What is this thing hanging around my neck? The camera? Oh. I’m supposed to be taking pictures for the blog…) It took some doing, but I got back into the task at hand.

Even if you have a narrow search, it’s likely something off-list will catch your eye. Go try it on if you’re so inclined. But if it’s not something you came in for, and it doesn’t fit so you don’t buy it, no big deal, right? Which leads me to my next point.

Enormous rope/twill acorn and matching squash, anyone?

Don’t buy the next best thing

Never, ever buy the consolation prize. It’s like eating carob when you want chocolate.

Ultimately, you want a flexible wardrobe filled only with pieces you love. This concept has been covered in various posts but I’m going to keep harping on it. Run it past the Allan test, Lessons From a Chronic Closet Cleaner.  What you don’t buy is just as important as what you do buy, Shopping 101

Don’t buy it just because you can afford it

You will find some incredible items that might not be in your regular budget at these places. Twice I have nearly made it to the register with Rag and Bone sweaters in hand. Neither sweater looked particularly good on me. But they were Rag and Bone! And I could afford them! The “comparison price” on the tag should have no value to you whatsoever. Yes, this is cheaper than it was originally, but it’s only a good deal if you love it and wear it with joy.

This rock-and-roll look is never going to be me, no matter how much of a steal that jacket is.

Years ago, I was in regular contact with another mom from my children’s preschool. She was extremely wealthy. I envied what I assumed was the freedom that came with having so much money. Standing in the long, candy-and-wrapping-paper laden checkout line at TJ Maxx one day, I noticed this mom at one of the registers. Her cart was heaped high and over flowing with stuff: sweaters and ponchos and table clothes and shoes and clever black and white signs commenting on the value of family. She was buying with a sort of frenzied haste, laying one item then the next on the counter, a nervous steam of chatter directed at the check out attendant. I turned away, not wanting her to see me witness this panic-filled excess.

How fun would it be to have a pillow fight in this aisle?

The image of that frenzied mom sticks with me every time I shop at a discount store. Like any other shopping experience, I have to make the choice to buy responsibly with the goal of creating a wardrobe that makes my life easier and more fun. We can use discount stores to score some quality items we might not otherwise be able to afford, to try out new styles or brands, and to experiment with fun trends.

Keeps your goals in mind. You are in the store to build a wardrobe, not to buy twice as much as you would elsewhere. Ultimately an easy and functional wardrobe should equal less time shopping, less time attempting to get dressed, and more time hiking and pondering life with friends.

One of my favorite discount store finds. Lucky Brand.

For more tips on making the most of your discount shopping experience, check out Seattle-based blogger Morgann’s post on the topic from Glitter in the Grey. This woman knows shopping!

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