After-Christmas Sales and Clearance Shopping Tips

Secrets to finding after-christmas or clearance home theater bargains

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After-Christmas, Year-End, and Clearance sales during the Spring and Fall are a great time to get some good deals, but you can also end up with a purchase disaster. This is where the consumer needs to know how to shop smart. Don't make the mistake of quickly grabbing the newspaper Ad and then running down in a rush to your local consumer electronics retailer without arming yourself with useful knowledge and tools to get the most from your dollar.

Clearance sales are held during different times of the year when retailers try to do several things: Sell any overstock still taking up too much shelf space, sell items that are soon to be on the clearance list, turnaround gift returns/exchanges (both opened and unopened), sell through old display models, and sell old products that have been to service.

Overstock Items

This is where the consumer can get a good deal, depending on how desperate the store is to clear out shelf space. Overstock items are usually those loss leaders, such as those $29 DVD players, $49 Blu-ray Disc players, $199 LCD TVs,  $249 budget home theater packages, and $149 sound bars, that are still new and in sealed boxes. Here you know that they haven't been opened, returned, or used.

These may not always be the best known name-brand models, but can be a good value, as long as they are available. These items are usually the first to go, especially in an after-Christmas sale, so get to the store early the day after Christmas for the best chance of grabbing one of these products.

Soon-To-Be-Clearance Items

This is my favorite bargain-sale category, especially in the January and Spring time frame. Here is the "scoop". Every January, the CES is held in Las Vegas in which all the consumer electronics manufacturers from around the World unveil their products for the coming year.

These products start to hit shelves in February and continue into the Spring and Summer.

Needless to say, buyers from the big consumer electronics retail chains to small regional and home town independents flock to this show in order to place orders for new products.

However, in order to beat the competition in placing these products on store shelves, the retailers must clear out current products targeted for replacement from their warehouses and stores as quickly as possible.

This is where the consumer can benefit. If a retailer made the "mistake" of over-estimating the demand for a particular AV receiver, for instance, and has lots of stock left by February, it will be more difficult to move the older model as its competitors, who didn't over order stock on the old model, sell the newer model when it arrives.

So, in order to "get rid" of the currently overstocked model, retailers will often place notice of a significant price drop on the older model.

However, many consumers don't react well to the word "clearance", which gives the connotation that the product may be, in some way, inferior to a newer model (that may or may not be the case in reality). Therefore, the promotion for the old model often carries an AD notice of a "Price Drop", "Instant Discount", or "Instant Rebate" or even "Special Purchase".

Also, an additional indicator of a clearance item is in the fine print; check for the phrases "While Supplies Last" and/or "No Rainchecks".

If you are bargain hunting, this could end up being a great deal. The retailer gets rid of a product that will soon be discontinued and the consumer gets a great price.

If you don't need the latest and greatest, and the "clearance" product has everything you really need, this could work out well. The key is to make sure the product meets your needs by checking out the features ahead of time on either the manufacturer's or store's website, if possible.

Also, check out some tips on how to interpret those weekly newspaper and online ADs.

Gift Returns/Exchanges

When it comes to returns and exchanges, stores want to turn these around as quickly as possible. A great example is a $29 DVD player. You wake up on Christmas Day and find out that you got a $29 DVD player from your significant other and another $29 DVD player from your parents. Of course, politically you have to decide which one you take back, but, without opening the box you take one back and exchange it for something else. However, you are not the only one. When you arrive at the store you are in line with ten other people coming back to exchange the same DVD player.

Obviously, this presents a minor problem for the store. They don't mind you returning the DVD player and exchanging it for something else. However, the store is getting stuck with something they thought they sold permanently, and now that the item has been returned it is beginning to take up store real estate that needs to be devoted to other products that can be sold at a higher profit margin. The answer, send it back to the department that sold it and turn it around quickly at a 5% to 15% percent discount, depending on whether the product was returned open or closed.

Once again, the consumer can make out, however, there are a couple of points to be aware of. The item may have been opened by the customer or by the store returns dept to check to contents. In this case, make sure you do four things:

  • Check for a discounted price sticker made by the store on the box and confirm with a sales person or store manager that the open box price is indeed a discount price over the same item brand new.
  • Check the contents of the box yourself, together with a sales person or store manager. Make sure there is an owner's manual for the product and all accessories for the product are present.
  • Note how the accessories are packaged. Are the cords, remote, and manual in their original packaging (which may indicate the product may not have been used), or are they obviously repackaged (which would most likely indicate the product was used for a period of time)? Lastly, if anything is missing, negotiate for a lower price that would realistically make up the price of the missing items.
  • If the box has been opened, ask to see the item plugged in and working before you leave the store.
  • Check to see if there is a date code on the open box label or price sticker. This won't tell you how old the product is, but it does tell you how long the item has been sitting on the shelf as open box item. 

Old Display Models

Here is where things can get a little "sticky" for the consumer. Typically, most products at consumer electronics retailers are on display anywhere from 90-days to six months, however, some products can be displayed for as long as a year.

Personally, I am very cautious about buying display items, because many retailers will not accurately inform the consumer as to how long the item in question has been on display and won't discuss how the item has been treated by sales staff and customers.

Products such as camcorders, digital cameras, TVs, and video projectors are especially suspect because, not only have they been on display, but they have been on and running for twelve hours a day for months, with camcorders and digital cameras being handled and bounced around by everyone from gentle grandmothers to small children.

However, other display items, such as AV receivers, DVD players, and Blu-ray Disc players don't get quite the same abuse as they are only turned on when a salesperson actually demos the products. In fact, most displays of AV receivers, DVD players, Blu-ray Disc players, and other related components are usually just sitting on a shelf as show pieces with no power and can't be used by the consumer anyway without sales staff assistance.

Taking all of these factors into consideration, you may get a great deal buying displays of HiFi components, DVD players, and Blu-ray Disc players, but my advice is don't get too excited about buying display TVs, digital cameras, or camcorders. If you do decide to buy such items, remember, there is no box, when items are put on display, almost all retailers destroy the box. In addition, you need to consider the following questions:

  • Can you return the item if it is found to be defective?
  • Is the manufacturer's warranty still valid?
  • Can you purchase an extended service plan for the unit, if you choose too?
  • Are all the accessories and owner's manual included?
  • If there is a price already marked for the unit, check to see that it is a least 15% off its original price, if any accessories or owner's manual is missing from the unit - negotiate a lower price, reflecting both the cost and availability of the missing accessories.

One great negotiating tool to get a good price on a display model is indicate that you would be willing to purchase an extended service plan on the unit an/or some additional accessories to go with it. Although, legally, the store can't adjust the price of a product in order for you to buy extended service plan or additional accessories, you are buying a display unit that the store wants to get rid of.

The store can basically set the price on a display item how it sees fit; don't settle for the posted price. There is no specific legal guideline that can determine the value of a product based on how many people have touched it, how long it has been on, any scratches or dents, etc.. from it being on display. The store can sell such items for any price the store or district managers choose to as long as they don't violate store or corporate policy.

Of course, there is no guarantee that a customer will get get a better deal by using this strategy, but it is certainly worth a try. With a some firm negotiation, the consumer can, potentially, get a good price on a display item, and still get some protection for the unit and/or needed accessories with the purchase. It all boils down to whether the product, the negotiation time, and the final price is really worth it.

Product Service Comebacks

Its the day after Christmas, or other heavily promoted clearance day, and you walk into your local consumer electronics retailer and see "clearance tables" all over the store with out-of-box and open-box products. Although many of the products on the tables may be from the previously discussed categories (open-box returns and displays), there is another category that appears on these tables: The Product Service Comeback.

  • Basically, there are several types of product service comebacks:
  • Products that were in service, brought in by customers, that were never claimed after they were repaired.
  • Displays that were damaged in some way, repaired and sent back to the store to either put back on display or sell as a discontinued unit.
  • Service plan exchanges. This includes products that were previously owned by customers, but required several repairs within a specified time period. In such cases many service plans give the store and/or the customer the option of having the unit repaired again or exchanged for an equivalent current replacement unit. At this point, the service department determines whether to just dispose of the unit, sent it back to the manufacturer, or service the unit again and try to sell it as an open box item. If the unit is sent into service and sent back to the store for sale, it ends up usually shows up on the "Clearance" table.

How can you tell if you are looking at such an item? The product should have a service sticker (a sticker which looks similar to a UPC code, but is placed on the unit itself). However, chances are, the sales person or manager will not tell you the product's service history.

One way to detect if something has been returned from service is to check to if the open box label is next to, or partially over, the service label. If the item has several labels stacked on top of each other (like when you put the latest year's car registration tag over the previous year's tag), there is a good chance that it has been serviced, and/or repriced several times, which may be a purchasing consideration.

To be honest, in many cases the service dept doesn't give the repair history information to the sales staff. In addition, many times the accessories and owner's manual are no longer with the unit and, in fact, the owner's manual may not even be available (although there are online services you can try). To make matters worse, sometimes these items may be over two years old.

The key here, if you choose to purchase one of these items, is to look over the item very carefully and not conclude a final purchase without seeing the product in working condition.

In addition, follow the same guidelines as outlined in the previous page on purchasing exchanged items. Many times, sales on such items are as-is, the store sale is final (no return), and the store may not consider the purchase of an extended service plan for the item because of the age and repair history of it.

I would not consider the purchase of this type of item, but if you are an adventurous buyer and a determined negotiator, you may get lucky and get something that is actually practical for your needs. Always keep in mind that you are buying at your own risk.

Final Thoughts

Well, there you have it, some of the secrets of retailing that may be useful to you in your search for that elusive After-Christmas, Year-end, or Clearance bargain. My final advice, at this point, is to eat a hearty meal before embarking on your quest, relax, have fun, but be on guard, and be ready to negotiate. Remember; don't just jump in without taking a closer look at a potential purchase!

If you found this article helpful, be sure to also check out my companion article on another way to shop for bargains during anytime of the year - Buying Refurbished Products - What You Need To Know