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The Good-Buy High : For More and More Shoppers, It Takes a Really Deep Discount to Make the Earth Move

August 15, 1996

In the sport of shopping, the thrill of victory comes in the evidence of a receipt.

Sharon Deal carried gold-medal proof around for years after she transformed a $500 bonus into $1,500 worth of suits and slacks in a single shopping trip to a Macy's outlet near San Francisco. "That receipt was my trophy. I pulled it out to show it to people. It was better than any Christmas I ever had," she says.

Bargain shopping can provide a high--some practitioners liken it to an addiction--for relatively little money. It's the rush of a good find, a chance to beat the system, a way to look like a million bucks without winning the lottery. And it makes the heart beat faster too.

"It's fabulous. It's better than sex," says Joan Weinberg, who has been bargain shopping her way through Los Angeles for the last 14 years. "Every time you put that pair of shoes on--and there's not all that effort [of sex] involved--there's a thrill, especially if you've paid only $15 for something that two weeks before went for $100."

Driven by need or desire, more American consumers are scouting the stores for huge markdowns. Nearly 18% of shoppers in a recent poll said it would take a discount of at least 50% to motivate them to buy, says C. Britt Beemer, director of research for America's Research Group in Charleston, S.C.

"Five years ago, no one said a discount of over 50% off was perceived to be reasonable or potentially viable as a sales discount message. It's really a reflection of how consumers want bargains," Beemer says.

In their quest to save, shoppers are demanding bigger sales reductions from department stores and increasingly turning to such discounters as Target or outlet malls, places many of them "wouldn't have been caught dead in 10 years ago," he adds.

The lure of a better price and the bragging rights that come with it are increasingly irresistible to many. Elizabeth Mason, proprietor of the Paper Bag Princess, a designer resale and vintage couture store in West Hollywood, speaks for the converted when she says, "Half the fun is saying how little you got it for. I would be a failure if I bought retail. It takes someone savvy to buy bargain and thrift, and no one would ever notice the difference."

Perry Hart, a musician who lives in West Los Angeles, became a confirmed bargain shopper when his need for nice clothes outpaced his income back when String of Pearls, a jazz vocal group, was formed in 1981. To fit in with the "high-fashion, high-celebrity" crowd the then-23-year-old found himself brushing tuxes with, he turned to vintage clothing stores and clearance racks.

Early on, he wore a 1940s wool flannel double-breasted tux with a pair of high-waisted baggy pants, snagged for $90 from Muskrat, a used clothing store in Santa Monica, to a benefit at Bob Hope's Toluca Lake home.

"This magazine executive from TV Guide says, 'It's an Armani isn't it?' I told him the truth. It amused me to no end. My opinion is, 'Who cares?' "

In this day and age, it's almost conspicuous consumption to spend $5,000 on a garment.

"When I make a purchase for a reasonable price, and it's within my budget, it's a very satisfying, adult feeling. It's doing the right thing," Hart says. "It's a self-esteem builder. You think, 'Oh good, I didn't just buy the first thing I ran across at the retail price.' It's a feeling of being in control."

Typical of the rest of Hart's wardrobe is an outfit he pieced together employing used and new sources. A modern Yves Saint Laurent amber and black sport coat was $7 at a Council Thrift Shop, a black cotton dress shirt was half price at the Broadway's recent closing sale, and linen slacks on a Malibu boutique clearance rack were $20.

Trips to the mall are information-gathering missions--to see what the kids are wearing--before shopping sales or vintage stores. Cotton dress shirts are always picked up during periodic sales at department stores, usually for a third or less of the original $60 cost.

The musician, now 38, who initially just needed to dress for a part, has evolved into a bargain shopper for life. If money fell out of the sky, he "might splurge by buying a Brooks Brothers tuxedo shirt [$75 retail] once in my life, but probably not, because you can get all those things so reasonably." Instead, he'd spring for the "ultimate class-act men's suit."


For Deal, marketing manager for Transamerica HomeFirst in San Francisco, bargain hunting began as a way to stretch her one-income budget when she became a single parent 17 years ago. Now it's more of a lifestyle choice.

"My impulse spending is in experiences," Deal says. "I cut the corners on material things so I can have experiences. I have a budget to shop so I can have a trip to Europe. It's not about the things I have, it's the things I have to remember."

But she will admit to a certain rush from making a killing on new clothing.

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