Insider Shopping Secrets: Department Store Workers Share How You Can Save


Ready for fall shopping? Get a kickstart, courtesy of our friends at the trendy shoe company Naughty Monkey, who are giving away a $100 gift certificate to their store! Enter to win on our Facebook page

Love to shop? Join the club; in 2011 we spent about $4.7 trillion (yes, trillon!) in retail sales, according the U.S. Commerce Department.

And who hasn’t overspent at one time or another? With new merchandise refreshed every season, every month–or, at discount retailers like Target and T.J. Maxx, every week–department stores can be a minefield if you go in uninformed. Especially since stores are designed to make you drop as much cash as possible.

Floor layouts, salespeople’s strategies and even storewide sales tap into our most basic consumer impulses. But not this fall: To help you engage in smarter retail therapy, we asked two former department store employees to reveal their juiciest secrets so you save more.

1. Start at the Back of the Store

One evergreen retail strategy is to bury the best discounts–clearance items, especially–in the rear of the store, so you’ll encounter racks of beautiful new merchandise before you get to the real nuggets.

Furthermore, stores will try to influence your purchases by advertising their current sales, even the smallest ones, heavily throughout the store, says Abby*, a former salesperson at a high-end New York City department store. “A lot of times, the best deals are not during the big advertised sales,” she says. “Usually the best sales items are on a rack toward the back or slightly hidden.”

2. Befriend Your Salesperson

Salespeople aren’t just trying to make sales on the spot. They’re motivated to keep customers apprised of future deals, too, because they have sales goals to meet during those promotions. Ask a clerk to put you in her client book and to call or email you about other sales as they happen.

A lot of stores will let even let you come in a week or so before the actual promotion and hold the merchandise you’re interested in, then email you when the sale begins. That way, you get the item at a discounted price before the sale officially starts; the industry term for this is a ‘pre-sell.’ “They’ll swipe your card, save the info, keep your merchandise packaged up in a special area, and give you a claim ticket to come back once the sale begins,” says Abby. Of course, the secondary motivation for a pre-sell is to get you back in the store to spend more, so make sure to return armed with the will power to pick up only what you already purchased.

3. Aim to Save at Least 30%

“Generally speaking, a sale isn’t really worth it unless you’re saving at least 30%,” says Abby. “And there’s always a sale happening in which you can save at least 30%.” So if you’re the type to cringe when you have to pay full retail, wait for the stuff you’re coveting to be introduced into the sale rotation. (Again, getting extra chummy with your salesperson means you might get tipped off to just when that is.)

4. Request a Price Adjustment

If you spent more on a full-price item than you’re comfortable with and having retail remorse, go back within seven days and check to see if that item’s been marked down, says Lisa*, a former high-end department store manager. Most stores will honor a price adjustment within that time frame, as long as you’ve kept your receipt and it’s a hard markdown (meaning the sale price is clearly indicated on the tag). The most foolproof way to avoid losing your receipt? Ask to have it emailed to you, and pull it up on your smartphone when you need it.

5.  Beware of Bundled Promotions

Avoid buy one, get one deals (known in the industry as BOGOs) and similar bulk sales that are designed to encourage you to buy more merchandise than you ordinarily would. If you’re spending more than you intended to, you’re not really saving, Lisa reminds us.

6.  Don’t Look to the Right

Research shows that most shoppers are right-handed and instinctively look to the right, so that’s where stores put the newest and most expensive stuff. To encourage that instinct, stores will often add extra lights and music to that area to entice you to come closer. The answer? Go into the store with an idea of what you need, and don’t get distracted by display tricks!

*Names have been changed.

Here’s another way to save: Our friends at the trendy shoe company Naughty Monkey are giving away a $100 gift certificate to their store! Enter to win on our Facebook page.


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  • Marie

    When I worked retail, I tried to give my very best to each and every customer. I would go above and beyond for customers who were polite to me and treated me with respect, because sadly, some customers didn’t.

    As far as I am concerned, it always pays to be polite to store employees. If you are frustrated (with your day, with your purchase that you are returning, with a long line, whatever), please don’t take it out on the employee. If you are shopping at a decent store, you should receive great customer service no matter what. But if you take the time to be kind, you may get excellent customer service.

    • Laura NYC

       I agree! I’ve never worked in retail, but I have done my fair share of shopping, and I have to say that it’s easier to get things done when I’m nice and happy to the sales person. It doesn’t cost anything to be polite and kind!

    • ducktapegurl

       Marie, you are absolutely right!  I have been in retail management for over 7 years now and I agree that if you are nice to the salesperson, you will get a LOT further.  We will do our best to help you but we will REALLY go above and beyond when you treat us with respect.

    • pamorama

      I worked retail for many years in my youth; therefore I am always polite and considerate to salespeople. I wish I could say the same for people in sales positions these days. This is a two-way relationship wherein the buyer still holds the ultimate power. Therefore really instead of admonishing customers to be “nice” in order to get good service, the attitude should more correctly be “maintain your professionalism and know your product.” Oh, and how about, even if you’re busy, greet a customer and let them know you’ll be with them when you can. It’s amazing how many times lately I’ve had department store sales associates walk away from me as I am trying to flag them down, tell me they are on their break, or simply continue talking on the phone or to another associate. I am constantly amused by the way I can enter a store with full intent and eagerness to buy a product, yet I leave without anything. I have sat at MAC counters while everyone around me is assisted, even those that came after me—I now boycott MAC because of this, there are plenty of other options. I have watched while everyone around me at Sephora or Ulta were helped (and they are teenagers buying lipstick, while I’m an older woman buying lots of product), as I desperately sought someone to answer my questions. Recently at Macy’s I went in the day of a sale and put $200+ worth of sale items on hold because I had forgotten my Macy’s card and was reassured the sale prices would be honored if I came back the next day (anytime w/in 24 hours I was told). When I returned first thing the next morning, my items were gone and when I tracked some of them back down, they would not honor the sales price. I even asked to see the manager, who did not care. I’m the first person to befriend or compliment someone who is helping me, but the notion that this is something the buyer needs to earn is curious to me.

  • PallaviB

    Excellent advise!

  • Sandy3997

    I agree with this but I often find that if I wait for things to go on sale, the items in my size have already sold out….only items that are a size 2 or 16 are left….

    • Mema

      If you get to the sale early the sizes you need are mostly available. But if your looking to get that extra 30%, 40%, and 50% off you will find slim pickings. I have also found the above advice true, if you get in with salesperson they may let you come in early and put items on hold. Best of both worlds because you get to shop without all the crowds and find your size.

  • Talia

    I work retail and have for years. The best advice – be kind to the salesperson. I give 100% to each and every customer and those who treat me well and respectfully in return, receive special notice of sales and such. I will go beyond for those lovely customers.

    If you are rude or disrespectful, I still give 100% customer service. I simply won’t give you the special coupons or deals. Nice begets nice…

    • LeAnne

       I try to be very nice to everyone I come across because it’s the right thing to do.  However, this has worked in my favor when shopping, because salespeople will often give me freebies, coupons, deals, and other perks just for taking time out of my day to be a decent human being. 

      • Talia

         I absolutely agree. Like you, I am kind to everyone and always give the benefit of the doubt. However, when a customer is kind and respectful to me, it guarantees them coupons, samples and freebies. What comes around, goes around. :)

    • Sxswann

      I couldn’t agree more. I have made friends with the ladies at my local department store – especially the Lancome counter and they ALWAYS give me extras and freebies and additional coupons.  They are professionals and should be treated as such.

  • Andrea

    Great advice. I also worked retail in NYC — and I really did enjoy helping customers, making them happy, and doing a good job. I didn’t usually spend time thinking about what was on sale vs. what was not (I was paid an hourly rate, not commission). I think a salesperson can help you save time, too, if you’re nice to them they’ll go into the stockroom to find your size, bring you more of something, help you load up a dressing room, etc. If time is money than a salesperson can save you in that way, too. 

  • Joanbrigham

    20 years in retail sales has made me understand everything that can happen behind the counters.  The frustrated customer is not your friend.  The best thing to do, is to go on the hunting expedition with them, and enlist an associate in the department to help.  Recently, we were in a department store looking for a filter for our refrigerator.  There was NO one to help us find it, no one to ring it up, and we wandered for a good 20 minutes into several departments to find someone.  When we found someone, believe it or not, they sent us to another register to check out.  Such unbelievably bad customer service!  Also, recently we were looking at a grand opening for a special advertised item.  They never got any, so I posted on their web page that they had “false advertisement”.  Today a rep called me and told me they found one for me and were holding it at their store.  

  • William Mcpherson

    Just be the same way you’ve always been. If you’re rude, you’ll be getting screwed without even knowing it and that makes me glad.

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