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The Good-Buy High

For More and More Orange County Shoppers, It Takes a Really Deep Discount to Make the Earth Move

August 22, 1996|VALERIE J. NELSON and KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If bargain-hunting were an Olympic sport, Newport Beach resident Diane Baker would be filling her shopping bag with gold medals.

Baker has mastered every angle of Orange County's discount scene. Several times a week, she scouts Five Points Plaza in Huntington Beach to check on the latest markdowns at Loehmann's. She's a frequent visitor of Designer Labels for Less in Santa Ana and Nordstrom Rack (which moves in February from Santa Ana to the new Metro Pointe discount center in Costa Mesa). On the weekends, she likes to hit the swap meets at the Orange County Fairgrounds and Golden West College in Huntington Beach.

"I like to dress well, but I don't like to pay full price," Baker says. "Most of the things I buy are 50% to 75% off retail."

Despite a reputation for affluence that has made it a magnet for Tiffany, Chanel and other tony stores, Orange County has a large population of consumers such as Baker who love bargains. Indeed, the county's wealthier residents are just as likely to shop discount as those on a tight budget.

"We draw from a pretty well-to-do clientele. We just did a research study that showed the majority of our customers are in the $45,000-plus income bracket," says Sandra Lamperts, property manager of Five Points Plaza.

The plaza is home to 38 stores, most of them discount stores or outlets such as Jessica McClintock, Contempo Casuals and the Outlet, which sells brand-name swimwear and workout clothes.

"Our shoppers come from Huntington Harbour and Newport Beach," Lamperts says. "Women with income still want value for their money. It doesn't matter how well off they are."

Baker's job as president of the Huntington Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau requires her to have a wardrobe filled with both career and evening wear. To her, discount shopping isn't just "a good workout"--it drastically cuts her clothing costs.

"If I have a black-tie event to go to at the last minute on a Saturday night, I'll already have something in my closet," Baker says. "My friends ask me how I can afford to buy those brands. When they need to go shopping, they call and ask, 'Are you busy?' "

Baker's personal best was scoring an Ellen Tracy wool pantsuit at a discount store for $60. The suit was originally marked $425 for the jacket and $225 for the skirt. She recently found Keds tennis shoes for her grandchildren selling for $8 a pair at a swap meet. They retail for about $24.

Baker also shops department stores, not only to see the latest styles and conduct price comparisons but also to hit the sales.

"Sometimes department stores have sales that beat the discount stores," she says.

The best deals, she says, can be had when discount stores hold their sales.

"Loehmann's has incredible sales all of the time, and the merchandise changes daily," she says. "The [Nordstrom] Rack has great clearance sales a couple of times a year. You can buy a $200 item for $10. And you have to watch for the 'buyer sell-outs' at Designer Labels--that means they've gone to different stores and bought what's left."

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."

*

Trips to the mall are information-gathering missions--to see what people are wearing--before shopping sales or vintage stores. Staples, such as cotton dress shirts, are picked up during periodic sales at department stores, usually for a third or less of the original cost.

Barbara Hughes' discount sleuthing is born of necessity too. She has expensive taste, so the Sherman Oaks legal secretary shops "when the spirit moves me," and it mostly guides her to Loehmann's or Nordstrom Rack.

"There's such a markup on clothes. I just can't afford to pay $400 for a blazer. What I'll end up doing is finding a nice one for $150," says Hughes, 56, who usually turns her Saturday forays into a social occasion with a friend.

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