Shop Till They Drop

How to buy all your holiday gifts at going-out-of-business sales.

Approach going-out-of-business sales with savvy

Many people greeted the recent news that several major retailers are going out of business by pondering what this means for the broader U.S. economy. Those people make more money than I do. Big bankruptcies mean big sales, and for me, the timing couldn’t have been better. Armed with a few clippings from the Wall Street Journal and a sense of dignity as slender as my checking account, I set out to see whether I could find suitable presents for everyone on my list at liquidation sales—the cheaper, the better.

Steve and Barry’s
The first stop on my bankruptcy bonanza tour was Steve and Barry’s, known primarily for selling college T-shirts and downscale clothing lines by celebrities like Venus Williams, Amanda Bynes, and Stephon Marbury. Earlier this year, word that Sarah Jessica Parker would be creating a line for Steve and Barry’s occasioned admiring coverage from the New York Times, which praised the company’s ambitious but bare-bones business plan. By late November, the company had announced it was liquidating all of its stores.

The first sight that greeted me at a forlorn S&B’s in midtown Manhattan was a shelf full of battered wooden hangers. Previously used proudly to display Michigan Wolverines sweatshirts and FDNY tees, these little pieces of retail history were now on sale, five for $1. They seemed positively overpriced, however, compared with some of the other stuff on offer. T-shirts were on sale at the cut rate of two for $13. The selection, however, wasn’t fabulous. Determined to take advantage of the twofer deal with an Ohio State (I’m from Cleveland) and a Georgetown (my sister’s a Hoya), I was left swimming in a sea of XXXL disappointment. Why couldn’t anyone on my list have gone to Fordham?

I had better luck in the women’s section, where I discovered a pair of red patent-leather heels for $12.98. Test-driving the surprisingly stable shoes, I sashayed over to the wantonly ransacked jewelry section, which was offering two pieces for $8. I settled on a bright geometric ring and delicate gold wire-hoop earrings that I could convince my sister I’d bought from a Soho vendor. There are no 12-year-old-girls on my shopping list, but I could have stuffed stockings for an entire sixth-grade clique with plastic bangles, sparkly hairclips, and “I Heart SATC” shirts. I also could have picked up some basics (cotton underwear for $2.98!) but decided it was too early in the game to give up on dazzle.

Whitehall Jewelers
With shiny things on my mind, I headed over to a  Whitehall Jewelers  in Jersey City, N.J.; the store is in the process of shuttering all of its 375 stores. I’m not in the market for fine jewelry myself, but I’m frequently consulted by my hapless father about my mother’s taste in such things. As it turned out, a simple way of describing her taste to my dad would be to say “Nothing they sell at Whitehall Jewelers.” Tennis bracelets and diamond cross pendants abound at Whitehall, the sort of generically gaudy pieces my mom would never wear. And yet, while no one on my list needs a diamond-encrusted Tiffany heart necklace knockoff, Whitehall was the most fun I’d had shopping in a long time. The sensation of having a salesclerk hold up a bauble, punch a large number into a calculator, and then reduce it by 60 percent or 75 percent is a thrilling one. Over and over, I made the clerk complete the ritual. The markdown was astonishing every time: Simple freshwater pearls, formerly $502, now $191! A killer onyx cocktail ring even my mom might like, formerly $326, now just $110! A large diamond ring, down from $8,000 to a mere $2,560, once the clerk threw in an extra 20 percent discount I hadn’t angled for the tiniest bit. (Perhaps she mistook my careful note-taking for the work of a particularly diligent fiancee—or maybe just a sad, lonely case who deserved an extra break.)

In an otherwise emptyish mall, the Whitehall store was packed. The case displaying engagement rings was the most crowded of all, with cheerful men consulting sisters, mothers, and saleswomen about which reduced rock might win their lady’s heart. I saw one man grab a pretty solitaire that, with the reduction, was less than just one of my paychecks (perhaps a new measurement to replace the punishing three months’ salary that was standard when investment bankers roamed the land).

Linens ‘n Things
While still in Jersey City, I headed over to Linens ‘n Things, the bankrupt home-goods retailer that’s been  liquidating all its stores since early October. It looked a little the way I imagine Rome must have looked during the holiday season in  A.D. 455. Displays had been destroyed, and bedding was strewn everywhere. There were lots of yellowed, dusty boxes that looked as if they’d been sitting in the back of a warehouse for decades. Yet none of this deterred the delighted nesters grabbing at $33 castle-shaped muffin tins or 17-piece stainless-steel Phillipe Richard (who?) cookware sets for $199.99. For a while, I looked for sensible gifts—measuring cups, serving spoons, fluffy bath towels—before realizing that these items were both the most shallowly discounted and the most picked over.

The linens, thus, were disappointing—oh, but the things! Pink Cuisinart soft-serve ice-cream maker? Still a little steep at $179.99, but can you really put a price on at-home, push-button fro-yo? A heated shiatsu massager for $59.99? Perfect for a soon-to-be-lonely significant other you’re planning to dump once the holiday season has passed. A tropical green Margaritaville “Frozen Concoction” Maker for $172.42? Pair it with a shaker of salt, and scratch all the Jimmy Buffet fans right off your list.

Large sections of the Linens ‘n Things store I visited were now nothing but empty shelving. But the beauty of a liquidation sale is that everything really must go. The Ikea-like shelving units were on offer for a mere 60 bucks, according to a bright orange sticker that could easily be replaced by a tidy red bow. For the rest of the fixtures and equipment in the store, prices were available upon request, as is the case with all truly fine goods.

Circuit City
Perhaps the most hyped liquidation sales have been the ones at  Circuit City, which has filed for bankruptcy protection and is closing 155 of its stores. But if you’re hoping to get a 46-inch LCD screen for a song, stop reading this right now and go shop, because when I visited a Manhattan location in late November, the only televisions left were the ones on the floor. (A man bought one from right out under me, as I was inspecting it.) You’re probably equally out of luck if you were hoping for an iPod—all sold out, though there were plenty of off-brand MP3 players left. Same thing with virtually all digital-photo printers and all but the very cheapest of speakers. A robust selection of DVDs at 25 percent off remained, depending on your definition of robust. I counted at least four thick stacks each of Made of Honor and, for the John C. Reilly enthusiast lurking in every family, Walk Hard and Talladega Nights. There was plenty of merchandise still left in the gaming section, too, but the games were a mere 10 percent off. I pictured a future in which a dozen Guitar Hero Aerosmith Limited Edition bundles—stubbornly still at $89.99—stood between this poor Circuit City and a peaceful death.

These four retail biggies are just a few of the stores closing up before the holidays—there are plenty of others  to explore. But before you venture into the growing retail graveyard, a few tips I gleaned from my adventures:

  • Don’t go shopping alone on a bone-chillingly cold day when you’ve just seen a play about the Iraq war with a recently laid-off friend, for instance. Everything about liquidation-sale shopping, other than the bottom line, is depressing: The stores look sad, the products look sad, your fellow bargain hunters look sad. Maybe preface your expedition by basking in the warm glow of It’s a Wonderful Life with a few friends while secretly downing whiskey out of a teacup to numb the emotions.
  • It might seem easier to do your liquidation shopping online at the stores offering simultaneous sales through their Web site. But you can generally get deeper discounts if you actually trek out to a store, and online you’re less likely to stumble upon a gem like the $14.99 singing baseball glove chip-and-dip I found at Linens n’ Things. (You really have to hear its rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to appreciate it.)
  • A quick word about ethics. Whether or not you reveal the origin of your liquidation gifts to their recipients is up to your discretion. Some people are delighted by bargains; knowing you saved a few precious bucks will be the tinsel on their tree this year. Other people think tinsel is cheap-looking. And no woman wants to know you purchased the symbol of your till-death-do-us-part devotion at a 90 percent markdown. I don’t want to lead anyone astray, but in my religious tradition at least, sins of omission committed at Christmas are nothing that Easter can’t fix.

And if you don’t feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth out of this pre-Christmas round, there’s something to look forward to: Historically, the peak season for major retail store bankruptcy filings has been January. So start cross-checking catalogs with third-quarter sales numbers. Zales, for instance, isn’t looking great. I’m predicting a rash of Valentine’s engagements.