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Shopping - When Is A Bargain?

( Originally Published 1931 )

Over a counter of miscellaneous volumes reduced for clearance the writer once observed the following sign :


According to this ridiculous suggestion, a set of Dickens (which you already have) for eighteen dollars is a better bargain than a set of Thackeray (which you have long wanted to buy) at twenty-five dollars. The fallacy is obvious in the case of books, but does not the same spirit govern many a "bargain" in dresses, or shoes, or furniture, or what not?

Utility to you is the controlling factor in deter-mining any real bargain. Then, and only then, does price become a consideration. William J. Locke, the novelist, let one of his characters buy a secondhand dentist's chair because it was so cheap. That may be dismissed as delightful fiction, but what household is without its mausoleum of mute witnesses to the shop-per's mistake in reading price tags rather than in considering needs?

A bargain is an article which will meet a real need at a price lower than can generally be expected in satisfying that need.

If the need is anticipated rather than immediate, there must be assurance that the purchase can be stored, that it will not deteriorate or become obsolete before it is to be put into use, that the price is not apt to go lower and, above all, that the need really will develop when and as anticipated. Buying porch furniture in October or winter underwear at a special sale in August, may be a real economy; but several factors other than price must be considered.

There are two parties to every bargain, the Merchant and the Shopper. Be sure that it is a bargain for you and not for him.


Closely associated with bargains are sales of one kind or another. "Fire Sales" have pretty well burned themselves out of public confidence and flare up nowadays only in the cheapest and least responsible stores. Bankruptcy and receivers' sales are sometimes honest and more frequently not so honest. The trouble is that goods of inferior quality are often bought in preparation for such sales and, mixed with the regular stock of better grade, give abnormally high profits to the merchant and the reverse of a bargain to shoppers. The specially vicious feature of these cases is that the public associates bankruptcy and receivership with the courts and assumes that, whatever the previous history of the store in question, this final sale is under court supervision and therefore honest. Such an assumption may prove costly.

While this book has been in preparation a friend of the writer's had an experience which is a case in point. This friend needed an overcoat. He was attracted by the advertisement of a bankruptcy sale under Federal court order. The store involved was a small one but favorably known. Overcoats were advertised at eighty-five dollars as mark-downs from one hundred and sixteen dollars. This friend bought one and enjoyed the illusion that he had made a substantial saving, until he showed it to the expert buyer in one of the big department stores. The buyer said that it was a good coat manufactured to sell in the smaller stores for eighty dollars (five dollars under the sale price!) but matchable from his stock at sixty-five dollars. In other words, this friend, instead of saving thirty-one dollars, paid at least twenty dollars more than necessary for the material, cut, and workmanship which he bought.

Other types of sales include those based on the expiration of leases or on moving to new locations, pre-inventory or stock-taking sales which certain stores feature once or twice a year, out-of-season sales when stores make special purchases in the manufacturers' dull season, general store drives for business in dull months or to celebrate anniversaries, end-of-season sales when room is being cleared for new stocks, and special sales when a specific line of goods is over-stocked.

A good many of these sales are perfectly honest and legitimate, and a careful shopper may pick up a real bargain if she finds among the articles offered the specific thing that will satisfy a definite need. But, except in stores which enjoy a high reputation for honesty and fair dealing, it is advisable not to be too ready to believe either that all the articles are of the same quality, or that the prices given are the original ones from which the goods have been marked down. It is always possible for a store (following the example of the overcoat cited above) to get in some new stock, mark it for a few days at some fictitious price with no thought of making any sales, and then reoffer it at a reduction which gives the shopper a tremendous saving on paper.

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