Memorial Day Sales: How to Snag a Good Deal, Guaranteed

Holiday Tips & News, Shopping, Shopping News
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If you’ve watched TV or checked your email anytime in the past few days, you’ve surely been inundated with Memorial Day sale ads for cars, clothes and everything in between. And like many of us, you probably can’t resist a trip to the store.

Consumers can’t help but gravitate toward that alluring feeling of getting a massive discount, says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., a professor at Golden Gate University and author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy.”

But just because something is on “sale” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily worth buying.

“What [consumers] are buying is that juicy good feeling that they got a good deal,” Yarrow says. “They’re not really focused on the merchandise, they’re sort of focused on the fun or thrill of getting a bargain, and that’s bad for shoppers.”

» MORE: What to buy (and skip) in June

It’s important to keep in mind that sales are beneficial for retailers, as they create a “buy now” mentality.

“While sales can save consumers money, they really help the retailer clear out inventory and drive demand,” says Jonah Berger, Ph.D., a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of New York Times best-seller “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.”

So is all of this to say that sales like those you’ll encounter over Memorial Day weekend are bad? No. But you’re certainly more likely to buy things you don’t need simply because they’re on sale.

Here’s how to separate out those legitimately good deals — and ensure you’re not being taken by the fantasy of a bargain.

Shopping smart on Memorial Day

Monitor prices before the sale starts. The bold percent-off claims you’ll see plastered around the big-box stores this weekend don’t mean much in today’s retail world. That’s because the 50% — or 60%, or 70%, or whatever percent — is typically taken off the product’s manufacturer’s suggested retail price, or MSRP, and not the price the item was selling for immediately before the sale. That’s a complicated way of saying that the actual discount you’re receiving is often not as large as it appears.

Ignore these numbers.

While stores will try to play up the percent-off discount, pay attention to the price alone. Is the product being sold for a price that’s reasonable for your budget? Is it cheaper than the same product at other stores? Only then should you consider buying it.

One way to determine the answers to these questions is to monitor prices before the sale. If you have your eye on a particular product, watch its price in the day or so before the sale, then compare it with the price during the sale to see the real difference.

Devise a plan of attack. Don’t walk into a store’s weekend sale blindly, or you’re almost sure to emerge with a few more pairs of sandals than you actually need. Make a list of what you’re looking for before you ever step foot in the store or land on its webpage. While in pursuit of that one great deal, you don’t want to get sidetracked with other lesser deals.

Consumers in general have a difficult time figuring out the inherent worth of a given product, Yarrow says. So price reductions function as signposts, flagging that a particular product is worth buying, and essentially giving shoppers permission to make the purchase. But once they buy one item at a discounted price, it’s tempting to buy more and more, especially since shoppers often feel masterful, accomplished and, yes, happy after they score a sweet deal.

To avoid falling into this trap, “imagine the price of everything you’re looking at is the original price,” Yarrow recommends. “Every time you go to make a purchase, just look at the price and disregard whether it’s a reduction or not, and then consider the value.”

Rake in rewards with your purchases. If you’re planning to buy something major over Memorial Day weekend — like a mattress or appliance — consider making your purchase with a credit card. As long as you’re not swiping plastic for more than you can afford to pay off, credit cards can offer perks for shoppers. For instance, some rewards cards offer cash back on certain purchases, while others offer price protection in the event the item you buy drops in price after you pay.

Don’t expect deals to be automatic. Discounts won’t just be handed to you on Memorial Day. Sometimes, guaranteeing you aren’t overcharged takes a little elbow grease. Make sure you do your homework to find coupons and promo codes ahead of time. Then, be sure to enter relevant coupon codes online and have either a physical or digital version of the coupon ready in the store.

» MORE: What not to buy during Memorial Day sales

It’s not all smoke and mirrors on Memorial Day weekend. There are guaranteed to be some undeniably amazing deals up for grabs, especially on furniture and mattresses. So if you’ll be stepping away from the barbecue for some retail therapy this weekend, use your best judgment and self-control.

As Berger recommends, “Don’t focus on the deal, focus on the item. Is this something you really want? Do you want it so much that you’d be willing to pay even full price? Thinking about what you’re buying rather than just how much you’re paying will increase the chance you’re happy later on.”

Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: courtney@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @courtneynerd.