These are my rules for shopping:
Avoid Big Sales
A big sale can mean big price cuts with ample product. It can also mean hundreds of tired, frustrated people, staff included. Big sales with big crowds can make shopping an awful experience. Also, it puts your decision making skills in jeopardy, because of flash marketing. When someone says "limited time" offer to me, I inevitably hear "scam." I would suggest shopping the night before the sale. You might still get the markdowns advertised if they've been priced out early. Otherwise, shopping after the sale will vastly limit your available merchandise, but usually the discounts remain or become even greater.
A true sale shopper knows to peep into the store every once in a while and check for markdowns. This has been called "predatory shopping." I consider it a retail version of chicken. This is my most loved version of shopping. It's like the thrill of the hunt with delayed gratification.
Note: If you have to attend a huge sale, wear sensible, easily removable shoes and clothes. Every year, I attend Madison, WI Maxwell Street Days. I have gone with my aunt before. She wears a long, flowy skirt and a neutral colored tank top, so she can try on clothing without a dressing room. That woman is a master. Also, treat the sales people with respect. I have witnessed a sales clerk recoil after she turned down a coupon. She seemed to be expecting me to take a swing at her. Don't make someone's job more difficult, because you feel crowded and frustrated. She didn't make the coupon rules. Which reminds me, always have them at least scan in your coupon. Don't let them just guess it doesn't work.
It's Not On Sale Unless It's At Least 50% Off
Clothing and accessory markup is ridiculous. The prices you see on the tags can have up to a 300 percent markup. Here is a link to a short article on the subject. I don't really consider something on sale unless it is at least 50% off. For example: Buy One Get One 50% Off is not a sale. Do the simple math; that's 25% off, and marketing is forcing your hand into a second unnecessary, over-priced purchase.
It's a good idea to keep an eye out for when sales happen. Right now, Winter Coats are on sale. Here is a list from Lifehacker for the best times to find anything in 2011. On a closer to home note, I know that Younkers sale prices are stepped percentages off: 65%, 70%, 75%, 85%. After that they are price marked. I also keep an eye out around stores I frequent for an additional 50% off sale prices.
Predict Your Future Needs
My friend Ciera and I were wandering the mall yesterday. (And yes, I got so exhausted from the trek, I wanted to sleep in the car back home.) I lost my mind for a second and stopped right in the middle of asking her if she needed a winter coat to remember she was moving to North Carolina in May and will possibly never need a winter coat again.
Knowing what you'll need twelve months down the line is important when you're sale shopping. Usually, the best deals can be found right after the season is over. Buy swimsuits in September and winter coats in March. Then, hope and pray you stay the same size.
If It's Not Marked Down, It Isn't On Sale
This is a rule that isn't always a true. Sometimes I do find nice sales where entire racks of seasonal clothing have been price marked at say $49.99 for a winter coat that's MSRP is $240.00.
But, most of the time - especially at places like Kohl's - entire racks of items are "marked down" from absurd prices to almost acceptable prices. This once again is marketing; don't let yourself be fooled. Do the simple math and compare the numbers. If something seems steep, it probably is. (This is also why I don't like Kohl's.)
Try On Everything
When I comb the racks, I generally ignore sizes. I feel like a lot of what is available, that is marked down, that doesn't suck has been sized incorrectly. A lot of people shop by saying, "I am a size 6 and only a size 6." In that case, their stubbornness can be your gain.
Pick out everything you like the looks of and try it on. Don't be too obsessed with what doesn't fit you. Be more aware of what actually does. Standardized sizing in the clothing industry is a joke.
Always Search for Defects
The other likely reason that something is on sale that is acceptable looking is that the item in question has a defect. Search for poor sewing, weirdo darts, pulled threads and stains.
When I actually do go thrift shopping, I'm always looking at coats. I learned the hard way to always check the arm pits. The last thing you need is strange, floppy fabric annoying your under arms.
Buy What You Want
This is crucial, and possibly the most important advice I can give shoppers. Buy items you would buy at their MSRP. Do not convince yourself that you want something just because it is on sale. If it has weird darts, is incorrectly sized and is dyed the most heinous color imaginable... but it's 99% off, don't buy it unless it's cheaper than wash rags and your kitchen needs a good scrub. Knowing something was cheaply priced is not enough to make anyone want to wear something she hates. Plus, consider the space in one's closet valuable real estate. Don't lease space to something that doesn't work.
You Can't Choose What You Love
I do want to add that if you love something, and you can afford it, I say go for it. I still think about a soft leather, red pair of ballet slippers I hovered over for three months when I was a senior in high school.
You Can't Love Everything
At the same time, when you're sale shopping and have good enough body image, everything looks cute or at least is tolerable. Understand what you already have and recognize whether or not you would be filling a hole in your closet. Avoid duplicates if you can.
Wear Nude Undergarments
This one may seem a little silly, but it's important. A day of shopping can be ruined by a blue bra.