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Buying cheap is not always a smart shopping strategy

If you missed the "Cash for Clunkers" buying frenzy that swept across Western New York, don't worry. One savvy Buffalo businessman gives this, albiet-unpopular, advice to those who labor for their dollars:

"There's always a bargain. Keep your money in your pocket."

Today, consumer science reflects his folk-based advice about deals for more things than just cars. Here's how you can shop smart and avoid a cultural obsession for bargains over quality:

1. If the tag says "marked down," it might not be so special. "Making markdowns was once an art, but today it is big business -- legions of mathematicians work on the problem, generating sophisticated computer models that tell big chains when, how and by how much they should lower prices -- in some cases, store by store," notes science journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell in her revelatory new book "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture."

"In 1955, only 5.2 percent of department store goods were marked down," Shell says in her book. "Today, the percent of markdowns across all sectors is an astonishing 33 percent. A $75 item -- be it a radio, a sweater or a pair of ice skates -- sells far more quickly if it's 'reduced' from $200. For this reason, many big ticket items -- mattresses, rugs, jewelry -- are almost never sold at 'full price.' "
2. Don't assume outlet malls are always such a bargain. "Outlet malls are America's No. 1 travel destination -- pulling in more visitors each year than Times Square, Disney World and the Grand Canyon combined," Shell continues.

"On average, customers spend 80 percent more per visit at outlet malls than they do at regional malls, and the outlets are specifically designed with that in mind."
3. Don't waste fuel. Factor in the gasoline and related automobile costs to get to these often out-of-the-way outlet malls.

Remember that your time is a scarce resource, too.
4. Labels can lie. Simply because the shirt you like in the outlet mall has a designer label, doesn't mean it's the same as what you might get in that designer's showroom. "Makers of designer and brand name fashion goods often produce a secondary line specifically for outlet malls -- and customers rarely know the difference," Shell reveals.
5. A penny saved? Remember that the buzz you get from a bargain is short-lived. And beware of the number nine. An Amherst marketer learned that loping a penny off the price -- to a "99-cent" figure -- often increased sales.

"Psychologists have found that our brains light up at the prospect of a bargain, but go dull again after the purchase is made," warns Shell. "Discounts trigger the more primitive regions of the brain to buy. Many factors play into this -- from the actual price (the number nine almost never fails to stimulate excitement) -- to the positioning of a discount store. Marketers do everything in their power to insure that our impulsive brain dominates our more rational brain."

Be advised that shopping addictions get started when people feel a purchase will fill a void in their lives. Because it never permanently does, it only feeds the obsession for the eternal "next purchase" that supposedly will.

And sometimes that loop for a "fix" can spill over into pathology, as A&E's new documentary "Hoarders" shows. During a recent installment, one featured "shopper," under penalty of eviction, had to toss freezers-full of dangerously-old food, purchased because of distant-past sales. The next week another hoarder, admitted to spending up to $200 at thrift store sprees, revealing that she got "a charge" when she thought she was getting a good deal, even though the real cost was her lost marriage and family.

6. In the long run, "quality" may prove to be less-expensive. If the $10 pair of slippers you bought at the discount drugstore, falls apart within a month, is it really a better deal than an initially-costlier purchase of better-constructed footwear?

Also when it comes to the food you put in your body, will snacks and other inexpensive treats prove to be such a bargain when your health is irrevocably trashed?

Remember that health is wealth.

7. Value in clunkers. And about your clunker -- maybe you should keep it and treat it to a car wash. Some shoppers found car salesmen unwilling to budge from sticker prices during "Cash for Clunkers" mania. A few local auto experts argued that the government rebate just covered the depreciation that occurs when you drive a new car off the dealer's lot.

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More on the subject of driving: Many News readers commented on the recent column about saving money by driving safely. One reader made the following points:

"New York is one of only seven states that clings to the 55 mph speed limit for limited access, divided highways. Yes, 43 states have repealed the 55 mph, even for urban highways.

"Last year, New York State troopers issued over a million tickets, doubtless the vast majority for speeding. I'd like to propose that when a million citizens are cited for contravening any law in the course of a single year, that it's the law -- not the citizens -- that's the issue.

"It's outrageous that two-lane highways, with their panoply of hazards, such as intersections, oncoming traffic, driveways and farm tractors, have the same speed limit as multi-lane, limited access highways. Additionally, many divided highways in the New York metropolitan area have even lower [speed] limits -- 45 mph in some cases."

e-mail: lcontinelli@buffnews.com

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