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INTERIORS : Go-Getters Go to Outlets, Clearances

March 12, 1994|From Associated Press

Be adventurous, prepared, persistent. It works for Scouts, and it should work for shoppers who want to stretch their furniture budget in the wilds of estate sales and consignment shops.

"Often, you can find great construction in a sofa. If the fabric isn't right, you can have slipcovers made," said Judy Haines-Ricciardi, a decorator who likes to scrounge-shop. "Even figuring in the cost of fabric and labor, it's possible to save well over 50% and to get a sofa that will last for many years."

Haines-Ricciardi recently spent $1,400 at an estate sale for a dining table and eight chairs by a top North Carolina maker. The set went to her sister. At another estate sale, she found a down-filled sofa for $450 for a client. An additional $575 for slipcover fabric and labor produced a piece that looks like the $4,000 sofa it would be if purchased new.

Getting bulky items home can be a hassle, but in her area a lot of sales are organized by professionals who will arrange delivery or at least provide the name and phone number of a person with a truck.

A brand name helps establish value, but Haines-Ricciardi said it doesn't take a lot of expertise to pick out quality furniture. To judge a sofa, for example, lift the piece at one corner to test its weight. Better frames are heavier frames.

Haines-Ricciardi keeps abreast of estate sales by reading late-week classified ads in her local newspaper. In addition to secondhand shopping, she suggests checking local department stores and better furniture stores for clearance centers.

Many higher-end retail furniture stores offer markdowns and special purchases such as manufacturers' close-outs in regular departments. But the best buys are sometimes in their outlet stores, where prices may be marked down 40% to 90% for one-of-a-kind items that may be slightly damaged or distressed.

"The secret to successful shopping in a clearance mode is to know what you are looking for and to have the patience to wait for it," said Jim Gabbert, president of Gabbert's Furniture & Design Studio, which has outlets at its stores in Minneapolis, Dallas and Fort Worth. "It's critical to go into outlet shops frequently and see what's on hand."

When shopping outlets, don't expect amenities. Typically, there are no returns, delivery is extra, and merchandise is sold as-is.

The main reason for a sale is to get customers into the store. Home furnishings sales are generally in late winter and late summer, traditionally low-traffic times. Some stores also have floor sample sales just before new merchandise arrives. That can be almost any time of the year.

Bob Nightingale, president of the Home Furnishings Council, an industry trade association, said the best bargains are probably found when a store is going out of business. Otherwise, he said, if an item sells well, it may never be on sale.

Nightingale suggested browsing and asking questions before buying.

Some stores, including Gabbert's, have frequent seminars on topics ranging from how to accessorize to how to recognize quality. Not all companies are so forthcoming, however, because there's an industry tradition against educating customers who then might go elsewhere to buy. A number of retailers, however, train salespeople to offer information to those who ask.

One source of basic information is a decorating guide from the Home Furnishings Council. The guide, called "Haven," is free from 3,500 retailers nationwide.

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For the Home Furnishings Council brochure, call (800) 521-4663 for the nearest retailer.

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