How to “Win” at Shopping

Here is how to shop and ensure that you’re getting exactly what you want, and at the best price too. Brought to you by the Posh Ranger.

Bright stars ignite the world "POW!"

You don’t realize it, but you’re holding your shopping bags on a battlefield. The other shoppers have those netted camo World War I helmets on, they’re lying in the trenches between long aisles of dresses on their hangers, and they’re holding their purses in both hands like rifles. Every time that some woman buys a blouse, or worse, a whole outfit, marked up to 200 percent or 1,000 percent of the price it cost to produce it, there’s a deafening explosion, debris flying and some banshee wail off in the distance somewhere. Even when things are on sale, you aren’t getting a deal; there’s carnage. Then, when we go home and sit on the bed, look down at all our shopping bags, the smile fades for a time. Our eyes get wide and we ask ourselves ‘What have I done?’ ‘Does this sweater really cost this much?’ Or the dreaded, ‘God, I’ll have to pay that LOFT card off in a week…’ Then, you dart into the bags that crackle like birthday wrapping paper, snatch off the tissue paper and finger your catch, feel the gently clinking beads or suave fabric of the dress until you feel better. Like Gollum.

That’s how I felt recently when I, sadly, had to exchange those beloved zebra print, hot pink shoes I Instagram’d about (these are currently at the Washington, D.C. Friendship Heights Nordstrom Rack if you want them). The shoes are perfect, but they’re just the wrong size, 6 medium. My friend Eugene, a stylist and expert when it comes to shoes, warned me that stretching these specially-designed Shoes of Prey was not the answer. So, now they’re back in the karmic shopping circle.

I exchanged them for something good, I swore that I would.

The Tale of Puffy, the Yellow Bag Slayer

Shopping isn’t easy, and fashionistas really feel that burn. In a way, we’re no different than anyone else who hates shopping—we just enjoy suffering through it. I once went to Emporium DNA in Dupont Circle (recently closed, or covered up along with GStar Raw) hoping to find my next pair of incredible Melissa pumps, quick aside—these are vegan, modern shoes made in Brazil that always smell like My Little Ponies—and check out anything else designer they had on tap. Think of Emporium DNA as a very, very, extremely posh designer rack store. Like Nordstrom Rack on steroids. Ahem, while there, I wandered to the back of the store, confident that everything would be miles high above my price point, but I enjoy going into stores the same way some people like to go to museums and look at paintings. I just had to look and feel dazzled. High up on a shelf, again, literally above my usual ken at 5-foot-1… was a big, puffy work bag, so pillow-looking I could have snuggled up against it, and ontop of that, it was the most brilliant shade of screaming firework yellow. A highlighter yellow so bright, it looked like it would burst—or had burst already and was sitting there, still smouldering. I wanted that bag, badly. And when I dared to check the price tag though I knew that I shouldn’t (imagine doing that at an art gallery; you’d go crazy each time) it was $400. That’s the number in my head that I remember until this day.

I couldn’t believe something so beautiful would be impossible for me to have. Sure, I had $400 in the bank. I might back-budget and get it. But I couldn’t justify that. I really couldn’t. It was almost hurtful, that someone out there, some evil queen of shopping demanded it be so expensive for no good reason. I imagine that an evil queen of shopping would look like Rita from Power Rangers. You don’t think you remember Rita but you do. She was in the opening sequence of the show, in her strangely slightly glam outfit, coming out of that sewer thing and pointing long black pointed nails, more a 90s kids show Lady Gaga than anything truly scary, and she snarled prettily in her nasal voice, “It’s been 10,000 years and I’m finally free… it’s time to conquer… Eaaaaarrrrth.” I secretly liked Rita and wanted to see more of her outfits, but she mostly wore the same thing all the time. Mega bummer.

Well, coming back to the 2000s… I might have seen such an evil Rita type troll person, crouched up there, petting the bag and glinting down at me, overly-emoting with their smizing eyes (a la Tyra Banks, you know, smiling with your eyes, smizing), rolling their shoulders as I backed away in digust and hurt… some weeks later, I brought my sister into the store to show her the unbelievable circus spectacle, and she agreed that it was, truly, a very cute, overpriced bag. But then, my big sister—and I still call her that when we’re both in our 30s—said something else: “I bet you can get that much cheaper at another store.”

“No, I don’t I think I can. Made like that… it’s so special and so perfect. Wait, do you really think I can?”

“Sure. That’s not hard. That’ll be easy. You could do it. Like at Target, I’m sure they have that.”

“Ohmygosh! You are so right… I totally could. I mean, maybe not Target… but Express? Bebe? I could try a department store, even…”

“Or H&M—”

“I don’t like H&M!”

No, I don’t like H&M. Which, of course, means I am a bad person. But many of my shopping conversations with other people abruptly end that way.

I still shop at H&M anyway, you know.

The Bag Slaying Strategy

Lucky me, I had this conversation in 2015, the summer when bold yellow exploded all over the fashion scene and because I…

  1. Knew the value of that bag.
  2. Understood that it was not such a rare item.
  3. Tried different stores that had the same kind of thing in stock.

I had a real shot at getting it. For me, there’s a little more skill to this than doing a Google shopping search, actually. I had a really specific bag shape and color in mind. I was even picky about the texture, how it opened and closed, lots of things… I’m the kind of shopper that an internet shopping search does not help because I am finicky and demanding. As demanding about shopping as Evil Shopping Queen Rita would be. Perhaps I’m her nemesis? And for some items like purses, jewelry or bras, unless I already know the brand pretty well, I want to touch and inspect the thing first. You know, in the Power Rangers universe, I’d probably be the Posh Ranger, wearing couture vinyl covered in a repeated brand logo or something, the way Gucci bags are. “PR,” “PR” I’d have, printed all over the place. Or, better yet, “PowRay” or just “Pow” or “POW” monogrammed all over the place. I’ve had time think about it some more since the last paragraph.

In the end… I don’t think I should tell you how many stores I tried. I can’t tell if I have a problem or if it’s possible to get into shopping the same way some people get into collecting stamps… but I checked out the G by Guess store, a few DSW stores, Nordstrom Rack and Marshall’s of course… it became just a game after a while that I played during the summer. A ‘hold on, lemme check that store for this cute yellow bag I wanna get before we leave’ kind of thing. It was a fun challenge.

Caution: Going shopping for something while you’re already out shopping for something else leads to even more shopping. Right?

Patience… Discipline

All spring and summer I knew that damned—excuse my language—darned bag didn’t have to be $400 in order for me to buy something similar. I mean, it wasn’t a couture dress styled and stitched in a particular way. Essentially, it was a cuddly yellow rectangle. So, I worked it into my normal routine of popping into stores now and again, and decided I was fine with taking as long as I needed to find it. Eventually, I made a chance visit to the Bebe store at Pentagon City before I left the mall one summer afternoon and saw it. My cuddly yellow rectangle made of something… leather-ish. The inside, the outside, the stitching, the color, the dash of glam in the golden plate Bebe logo on the outside flap and golden zipper… it was perfect. And, it was discounted now that the season was coming to a close… I got that bag for $40. That’s right. I paid 10 percent of the price of the original bag I saw at Emporium DNA. And I had fun doing it.

These days, I love that bag so much that I keep feeling attracted to other yellow bags, mainly because they remind me of it. After I first bought that bag, I had to go on a family vacation before I had a chance to use it, and I actually… if you can believe it or not… missed the bag. I did, I had some small feelings for it, I guess, and I was a bit sad leaving it alone at home. One of the first things I did when I got back from Charleston, which was definitely not a pleather-work-bag kind of vacation, I took that bag out of my closet, fawned over it, opened and unzipped all the bits and pieces, then petted it. I know, I have a problem.

A wonderful problem!

Bright yellow Bebe bag.

The Red-Tie Sweater Thingy

A more recent adventure I had—and you can perhaps do the same, when I suspect this is a new trend in sweaters—I was in Ann Taylor LOFT a week ago and noticed that they have these lovely sweaters that are tied at the shoulder so that they hang low over your chest and bare shoulders.

Cold Shoulder Sweater at Ann Taylor LOFT.

You could even wear a camisole underneath to make it more-conservative-yet-sexier. And I’ve seen velvety baseball caps in stores like DSW, Francesca’s and Lou Lou that match these sweaters (or suggest them) perfectly in texture and tone. And pop some lipstick on in the same color… so I have a future outfit boiling away in my mind, you see. The Posh Ranger is on the case! What would my Power Ranger machine thingy be when I morph? Probably a cute handbag that morphs into a cute pair of marching slacks with heels that kick bad guys all over the place.

(And now I hear Morbo, the bulbous green alien in-your-face anchorman from Futurama shouting at me, ‘Power Rangers do not work that way! Good night!’)

…Anyway. YouTube attention span break aside, I really liked this sweater when I tried it on, twice. But I didn’t really want another cream-pink sweater. I don’t wear them so often. LOFT has these in black too, but I felt that would somehow be too sexy and after thinking all that I was, well, ‘over it’ as they say. Le sigh… However, I did resolve to save my pennies and get it (it’s more than I’d normally spend on a sweater, especially with spring coming) because it’s so unique. And then, I’d have to change the color of the velvety hat I want from Franchesca’s that matches the Muave It Maybelline lipstick I’m obsessed with this season, etc., etc. I was glumly planning to change my whole imaginary outfit. But then again… what if I found a similar sweater in another color somewhere else? I made up my mind to keep an eye out for similar sweaters.

The Hunt

Just yesterday, I did. I first spotted this sweater at the end of an aisle I’d already fought past with my rifle in hand. You know, in Marshall’s. I was ascending the escalator with my other fellow shoppers, you know how you do, smeared in gun powder, blood stains of your enemies and a phased look over your glam camo… I was looking down at the level beneath because I was scanning the battlefield and noticed something that was not quite a swimsuit hanging at the end of the rack by wine-colored ties. All my favorite sweaters are that color. Instinctively, I recognized the shape of a sweater with cut out shoulders, and I imagined the neckline would hang down also, like the Ann Taylor LOFT sweater. A kind of necessary sweater-with-tie-shoulders engineering I worked out in my mind. But then again, I figured it was too good to be true. Maybe I’d go back down there to where I had already been shopping and check it out again. Later. Eh, only a maybe.

But I never forgot it. Eventually, I made my way back down from the home department when I was ready, squeezed through to that side of the rack (it was kind of near the wall on that side), where another shopper was intent on fingering through every single shirt on that clearance rack, drawing ever closer to the tiny wine-colored sweater I was racing to. I thought I might be in my size on that end of the rack since I’d been hunting in that area before. I surprised the other woman with a quick ‘excuse me,’ and used my finger to hook out the sweater-on-hanger faster than it should have been mortally possible for a human woman to see and select something to buy. At least, that is how it must have seemed—that the Posh Ranger had struck again!

The Investigation

Time to put my CSI: Fashion hat on. Tried the sweater, it looked great… and as someone who knits, I recognized very fine stitching that, in fact, had held through, undoubtedly, many people trying this sweater on. It had been marked down from $120 to $10, which is crazy. I mean… stupidly crazy. I inspected the sweater carefully, you have to when you’re shopping like this, it’s kind of a survival skill. No bad holes. No tears. And my confident knitter’s eye noticed that nothing was pulling apart. I carefully untied the woven straps at the shoulder, wondering if it was possible to cinch the sweater up higher since it was hanging a bit low for me, and realized the ties were stitched shut. Stitched shut very well, but evenso, you couldn’t completely untie this like the LOFT version and set it the way you like it. A ‘Hrmmmmm…’ moment. The Posh Ranger had to decide. Considering all these things, was this really a bargain? I always assume that retailers are willing to slash prices so low because the actual cost of making the sweater is possibly half the sale price. At the least. That way, somebody is still making a profit. I’m no fashion expert but, technically, as far as numbers, I was getting a bargain of some kind. But, was I really going to wear this sweater with the big cut out holes for sleeves? And no easy way to adjust it?

Selfie of me in red shoulder tie sweater in front of mirror

Well, let me tell you something about the Posh Ranger… I mean, me. My taste verges into the edgy and punk extremes, I’m smaller at the top than on the bottom, and so I am able to clean up in discount stores because I am willing to take the things that have been rejected because they are the wrong shape, color or style. And that’s practically everything. Hand me something funny looking and I snatch it from you like you’re holding a bawling baby mid-air. “There, there, pwecious, nobody’s gonna judge you anymore. I love that you’re hot pink and zebra striped with fur…”

I said to myself, in the changing room, ‘If it’s a tie, than you can tie it…’ while inspecting the stitched closed ties at the shoulder. I’d done enough knitting and crochet projects over the years to know you can finagle knots you’ve messed up so that they sit right where they’re supposed to. I potentially had the skill to cut it open, re-stitch, and sew it back to where I wanted… but I really wasn’t going to go through all that. Really didn’t feel like it. And another thing, this sweater reminded me of yet another Ann Taylor sweater I really wanted last year that I didn’t get in time. It was a peach thing with a bell-shaped stitched shape. It was just crafted very well to fall over a woman’s hips and was sort of peplum.

The Verdict

I decided this sweater wasn’t a horrible lemon. A few women before me didn’t want this sweater because the ties weren’t adjustable, it was a warm sweater but there were gaping holes in it in the middle of winter, it probably would not look good layered over anything else—so that option was out—and the sleeves had this wonderful bell-shape that covered up your whole hands. Sort of like a medieval princess’s gown. But you know, this look was also very… and you may have guessed it… kind of punk. Bold, antique looking sleeves, cut outs… yeah, that’s getting punked. So, knowing that I’d also triumph over clan LOFT by purchasing this crazily marked down sweater, I smeared on my warpaint, marched to the counter and got it. It was discounted to $10 from $120.

Marshalls price tag showing sweater discounted to $10 from $120.

So the moral of these stories…

Remember that if you’re noticing something for the first time in a store, then it’s likely on trend and you’ll notice it elsewhere, too. That’s somewhat intuitive, but in the heat of the moment, you may forget that the ‘one and only’ you’re gazing at and badly wanting to get isn’t so special. So snap yourself out of it and go to a different store before you break the bank.

Or, as my little sister once said (again, we’re all in our thirties), at the end of the day, they’re ‘just a pair of shoes’ or ‘just a sweater.’ Or is it? When you find yourself in that, ‘Should I just forget about this thing?’ or ‘I can’t forget about this thing!’ zone, that exciting place imbetween… you may want to roll the dice and play the game. Hunt down that good deal and try to win at shopping. Now that you’re armed and dangerous, I think you will.

Posh Ranger, out.

Have you ever had a ‘win at shopping’ moment?

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