Early, early birds: The deep, dark secret of retailers' big sales

Personally, I've never been a really huge fan of major seasonal sales. This isn't to say that I don't like to save money; in fact, I'm one of the most... um... frugal people that I know.

Some have even called me cheap.

What bugs me about big sales, though, is the "race to the Berlin wall" mentality that I often experience with them. Looking to save a few bucks, I suddenly find myself cheek-and-jowl with rushing, grasping hordes of reeking, grasping humanity. In this situation, my buying standards plummet, and I end up purchasing things that I don't want or need, often for the simple reason that some porcine walking disaster area just happens to want them more, and she ticked me off when she tripped me on the way to the half-priced shirts.

In other words, I don't like the person that I become when I'm at a big sale.

There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. When my wife worked for a department store, I discovered a sneaky little trick that enabled me to enjoy sales while maintaining my love of humanity. One night, before a major seasonal sale, she showed me how her store put up its sale prices and markdowns a couple of hours before closing. This means that, if one happened to be in, say, Belk's on the night before Thanksgiving, one might be able to take advantage of the sale prices without dealing with the Black Friday rush.

Retailers do this for two reasons: first, it minimizes the work that they have to do on big sale days. After all, with customers lining up hours before opening, retailers don't want to be worrying about last-minute reductions. By posting sale prices ahead of time, they can focus on organizing merchandise and ringing up early-birds.

The second reason that many retailers reduce prices the night before big events is that it gives their employees an opportunity to take advantage of the sales. The alternative generally involves employees putting aside merchandise, shopping during their work hours, or otherwise competing with customers. By offering them the sale a few hours early, the retailers ensure that their employees will be focused on selling, not buying.

Since my wife told me about this little trick, I've discovered that many stores use advance pricing. Of course, they don't advertise these early-early bird savings, as that would ruin the whole purpose of the thing, but a savvy shopper can take advantage of the big stores' time-saving technique. You never know: a little late-night stroll around your mall might net you some big bargains!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. If it weren't for sales, he'd probably be naked.

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