When I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, two summers ago, I was jobless and in desperate need of income. Somehow, with no sales experience at all, I landed a senior position at a Sharper Image (yes, that “neat” store with the massage chairs, light sabers and overpriced shoddy products).
Just the thought of being a salesman and hawking wares made me queasy, but unfortunately I excelled at it. I was employed with Sharper Image from before its bankruptcy to almost the bitter end, and during that year, I perfected the art of selling people stuff they didn’t need.
Now, the point of this column is not to besmirch salespeople or holiday shopping in general. Truth is, the majority of salespeople truly care about making the customer happy. But corporate scheming, employee incentives, good-hearted competition among co-workers and — for some jobs — commission can put the customer dead last.
Store plans are devised to be money traps, and moving as much product as possible is the name of the game. But in this economy, every dollar counts. So, without further ado, here are six easy and quick tips on how to be a smart holiday shopper.
Do your research
If you are a fanatic Black Friday shopper, then you are already well-informed and have your route planned — and possibly even timed. But if you are a person who aimlessly wanders through a mall or waits until Christmas Eve to take care of business, this rule applies to you. If the possible purchase is over $100, this rule really applies to you.
There are many reasons for this rule, but primarily it’s just a bad idea to buy anything based on the opinion of one person. Also, knowing exactly what you want will prevent a dodgy salesperson from pushing a certain product for personal reasons, i.e. they get a bonus or have dibs on the floor model.
Be cautious at liquidation sales
Unless you are buying a present for a friend you will never see again, think carefully before making a purchase at a going-out-of-business sale. At these events, all sales are usually final, and this rule is set in stone — trust me. For this reason, make sure all products are operable before you purchase them.
Sure, a loaded cappuccino machine for $60 is a good deal, but when you discover it's missing a $150 attachment, you can either buy the attachment or place your new conversation piece on the mantle. Plus, if the recipient doesn’t like your clearly well-thought-out and meaningful gift, you have now banished it to the world of Craigslist.
Avoid extras at the register
There are two types of extras that prove irresistible for customers. Convenience purchases are anything that will supposedly make your holiday hustle and bustle easier. New shoes? We have socks right here. Electric nose-hair trimmer? Let me get you a pack of batteries.
Just say no. Take five minutes and get them cheap somewhere else. Then there are the half-off-with-a-purchase and other deals that are available to you as a "valued" customer. Some of these can actually be steals, but most of the time, they are mediocre or unnecessary products only meant to increase sales. Be wary.
Exercise good judgment with warranties
Some warranties are customer friendly, and others provide a million loopholes for the company to avoid replacing your product. Ask specific questions like what happens if the exact model is no longer in stock and how much and what type of damage they cover. I once sold a $2.95 warranty on a $6.95 CD; this column is obviously my penance.
When you get to the register, reassess all purchases
I don’t care if you consider yourself a frugal or savvy holiday shopper; everyone should abide by this rule. As you are standing in one of those amusementpark-length lines, think about each item you are about to purchase. Don't buy junk just to check someone off your list. Holiday shopping is often a blur of rushed decisions and wasted money. If you are in a store with clever salespeople, there's also a good chance you were convinced to buy an item or two for which you have no need. Usually, everyone can set at least one item down before they get to the register.
Gift cards are great, but they can pose certain problems. If bankruptcy strikes, stores don’t have to honor gift cards. This is what happened at Sharper Image. Eventually, people could use their gift cards toward the end, but they had to spend twice the amount the card was worth (why yes, I did get yelled at a lot). If you are going to buy gift cards, buy them through credit card companies such as Visa. This is much more reliable and does not limit the person to just one store. As a side note, if you have a gift card, don’t tell the salesperson as soon as you walk in the door. Once they stop salivating, you won't even know what hit you.
Andrew Del-Colle is the arts editor for Vox Magazine and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.