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So Many Sales, So Little Time : Labor Day. Arbor Day. Every Day. Retailers’ come-ons are relentless. Some wonder if they’re for real.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who would have thought we’d ever moan about too many sales.

But the recent deluge of come-ons has many shoppers confused about how to cope in Sales City. Promotional plenitude has reached the point where you don’t even have to wait for goods to be discounted anymore. In this age of overnight-express-fax-it-to-me instant gratification, merchandise is likely to arrive on sale. Just check out all the grand-opening sales, introductory sales and the current favorite: preseason sales now at a store near you.

Should you miss such opportunities, there are still those ubiquitous one-day sales, 48-hour sales, weekend sales, liquidation sales, lost-our-lease sales and three-day sales, to name just a few.

And grab your calculator for this recent gem from a local department store now offering coupons: “You can save 50% to 70% off the original price when you take an additional 34% off the ticketed price of all already reduced fashions . . . plus . . . save another 10% off any one item in this sale with the coupons here.”

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Even more off the wall are the utterly mysterious “White Flower” sales presented by a Southern California department store chain.

The situation is so crazed that one retailer discussed it in a recent advertisement. Last month, in large type, Standard Shoe Stores asked newspaper readers: “What’s on sale? Only everything.” Then, in smaller text, the cut-price chain pointed out: “There seems to be a Big Sale going on at every shoe store in sight, including Standard Shoe Stores. But we don’t do much sale shouting around here. Clearance Sales make us yawn. Fifteen Hour Sales, we smile faintly.”

According to marketing analysts, consumer psychologists and retailers, the relentless sale phenomenon has been building since the mid-1980s when the economy was stronger--but mergers, acquisitions and takeovers sent indebted retail chains looking for fast cash infusions. Lately, the madness has been exacerbated by the recession.

To bring customers in, sales once reserved for the end of the season or year were moved up--and up, and up and up. Some stores even began buying merchandise exclusively for introductory sales.

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To a degree, the strategies worked. The experts say the word sale is so deeply associated with financial benefits in consumers’ minds that they come running. But on the flip side, they now tend to stay home when there aren’t sales.

Indeed, consumers are starting to get downright finicky about their bargains.

“Many people shrug their shoulders at 30% to 40% off,” says New York City-based retail analyst Alan Millstein, editor and publisher of the Fashion Network Report. “Consumers only respond now when the signs say half off or more. And many stores are so desperate to hold onto what they call market share, they will give you a credit for the difference between the regular price and the sale price if you buy something at full price and a week or so later it goes on sale.”

The game has become so complex and sophisticated that some observers say it’s smarter to discount the term sale altogether. “The term sale is a psychological device of advertising, basically calculated to convince a consumer that he does not have to comparatively shop,” warns Rex Beaber, a Century City-based psychologist and attorney. "(It) is just a shorthand way of saying it’s cheaper here and now. But like every other form of advertising, there is virtually no meaningful requirement of honesty. (It’s) like the words fresh or healthy .”

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Talk to consumers about sales and their responses range from “They’re getting to be a joke” to “70% does it for me, man.”

Says Kathy Delaney, a Glendale resident who considers herself a sales-rack maven, "(Sales) are just come-ons to get me to come in and buy other things. Advertised sales turn me off totally, but I like walking into a department store and looking at the unadvertised, permanent exhibition sale rack.”

Lots of shoppers find they now have to discriminate between various types of sales.

“One big department store near me has sales all the time. But it also has a once-a-year shoe sale for real. If you get there Day One, you can get Bruno Magli shoes for $30 a pair,” sighs a Beverly Hills resident, referring to high-style footwear that typically retails for $150 and up. “The only thing that’s a little obnoxious is that lots of people know about it. A woman actually grabbed a shoe out of my hand this year. I just said to her, ‘Give it back.’ And she did.”

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Even the pros feel uncomfortable shopping in today’s discount-drenched economy. “You feel like you’re being treated a little bit like an idiot because you know everything can’t be on sale all the time,” says Thomas J. Peters, the management consultant who co-wrote “In Search of Excellence” and other best-selling business books.

Peters recalls that a barrier of sorts was broken in the ‘80s after it became possible to buy cars on sale year-round (through rebates and other incentives). With the merger-buyout-takeover mania, financially strapped stores quickly succumbed to price-cutting frenzy. The competition followed suit.

“Massive competitors, massive varieties of new products--everything has speeded up dramatically. There’s no orderliness in any market,” Peters says. “Even Disney gives deals these days. They’ve been forced to play the game. The Japanese have even been sucked into the sales game with their automobiles. Everybody now believes they shouldn’t have to buy things until they go on sale, so you’ve got to play the game. The getting-ready-for-Christmas-sale now starts about Labor Day. And the post-Christmas sales now begin about Dec. 1.”

Many observers contend the trend is almost impossible to reverse. They note that only retailers who elected not to jump on the slashed-prices treadmill--such as Nordstrom and The Gap--now seem safe from its clutches.

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“We’ve gotten into a vicious promotion cycle in the last decade,” says David Stewart, a consumer psychologist and marketing professor at USC. “You can really look at buying patterns and see that when there are deals being offered, people come into the market. And when there aren’t, people go out of the market.”

Early on, retailers got into the promotions trap because it was a way to increase sales quickly, adds Stewart.

“But what retailers and other marketers didn’t realize is that a lot of those sales are mortgages against future sales that could have been at higher prices. If you take a longer-term view, it makes less sense to be constantly promoting, but how do you get out of it? You’ve trained customers to only buy on deal. You’ve got competitors who have the same problem you do. Who’s going to blink first?”

And in all the blinking, the consumer may suffer. Genuine sales still exist, perhaps even in greater numbers than in recent years because of the recession. But some bargains have been viewed as illusory--if not illegal.

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Advertised discounts have been called into question by district attorneys in Los Angeles and Orange counties. And in two separate cases, major Southern California merchants have paid six-figure civil penalties to settle false-advertising complaints without admitting any wrongdoing. In one case, substantial discounts were offered, but the actual savings were shown to be relatively small. In the other, sale goods were never offered at a higher price.

Herschel T. Elkins, who heads the state attorney general’s consumer law section, says there would be far more complaints brought, but local prosecutors don’t have the manpower for such labor-intensive investigations.

What do retailers--particularly those offering interminable sales--have to say about all this?

Offers one high-ranking department store chain executive: “As a woman, I agree that this is confusing for the consumer. But as a retailer, I’d rather not comment, because I believe some of the damage was caused by retailers.”

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Says an executive at a competing chain: “The question is provocative, but I think that in view of (our financial difficulties), I think it would be best not to comment.”

Phone calls to other companies known for offering ongoing sales were not returned. But specialty- store owners who believe they’ve been forced to offer more sales--to remain competitive--are willing to talk.

“It’s frightening. I predicted this would happen years ago when major stores started using sales as a hook to get people into stores,” says Fred Hayman, owner of Fred Hayman, Beverly Hills. “It’s probably the most dangerous thing to have happened to retailing. You can’t have that many sales and be profitable and give good service.

“For many years, we only had a sales rack with prices marked 30% to 50% off. We didn’t have sales signs in the windows. We can no longer do that today. The customer is simply overwhelmed with bargains.”

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So what’s an overwhelmed shopper to do?

Elkins advises consumers to carefully check the quality of goods against the quality of the deals. And he recommends they be particularly wary of going-out-of-business sales or lost-our-lease sales, which promise, but may not deliver, hefty markdowns.

For instance, Elkins has found that in a commonly practiced going-out-of-business ploy, some companies bring in additional merchandise from other vendors. The products may be far inferior to those normally offered by the store.

Attorney/psychologist Beaber maintains that consumers should never buy anything simply because it’s on sale.

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“Don’t pay attention to what people say about the quality or the ‘sale’ price of the merchandise,” he says. “The only questions you have to ask yourself are: At this moment in time are you ready to buy? What are the competitive prices in the marketplace? There’s only one way to know that, and it’s to shop.”

But even that strategy may not be smart unless you’re purchasing a big-ticket item, Beaber warns. He says shoppers should consider the information cost (your time plus the price of gas or telephone calls involved in shopping around) and the psychic energy cost.

“I would submit it’s wiser to be a diligent and hard-working consumer when you’re buying high-priced goods. There, the amount you save may make it worth your while to shop. On smaller items, shopping may be a reflection of unnecessary obsessiveness if you spend your psychic energy to save a piddling few pennies.

“Shopping takes up psychological energy. . . . People who think and shop for half an hour to save $5 better be convinced that their time is only worth $10 an hour.”

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Unless, of course they encounter one of those seemingly irresistible deals offering “50% to 60% off the original price when you take an additional 34% off the ticketed price of all already reduced fashions . . . plus save another 10% off any one item in this sale with the coupons here.”


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