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2013 October 11

The Bargain Hunter: Mark Ellwood On Scoring The Chicest Steals

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Mark Ellwood, right, and his new book "Bargain Fever" Mark Ellwood, right, and his new book "Bargain Fever"
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(NEW YORK) He's written for Travel + Leisure, New York, and Condé Nast Traveler, but Mark Ellwood's been holding a secret. He's turned his passion for a good sale into an acclaimed new book, Bargain Hunter: How to Shop in Discounted World out October 17th. The personable Brit tells The Daily how shopping has changed over the years and why we're all obsessed with getting more for less.

How did you come up with the idea for Bargain Fever?
When I moved to New York from London 15 years ago, one of my revelations was cut price designer clothes, whether the wonder of the Seventh Avenue sample sale or an early Saturday morning rifling the racks at Century 21. It changed my life (and meant I bought a far bigger closet than I'd planned). When I saw that discount mindedness go mass via flash sales like Gilt or Groupon or even Extreme Couponing, I wanted to find out what had changed to make us into bargain addicts. 

What's the book about?
Ten years ago, retailers sold 15 to 20 percent of their inventory at some kind of promotional price. Today that number is 40 to 45 percent and climbing. Sales of sales have doubled in a decade. I wanted to find out why that had happened, and what it means for shopping in the future. And yes, I hoped I'd pick up a few tips and VIP sample sale invitations along the way.

Was this a topic you were always interested in? 
I think the inner workings of retail are endlessly fascinating. My first job out of high school was at a record store, back when those existed—well, it was selling CDs—and I was mesmerized. Shopping is such a central part of everyday life yet we don't quite understand how it all works: maybe the fragrances used to manipulate our senses as we walk into a shop, perhaps, or the way that shelf layouts can massage our spending habits. But when it comes to retail, the topic of sales - how and why they're planned and executed - is like a pinata of juicy stories. 

What happened to stores like Filenes’ and Syms? 
It seems weird that when the world turned to discounting, any existing icons of cut price could falter and yet they did. The problem for poor Filenes, Syms and Daffy's—don't forget Clothing Bargains for Millionaires—was size. As discounting has become such a giant business, there’s so much merch specially produced for outlet malls and so many huge companies competing for product. TJX, parent of Marshalls and TJ Maxx annual revenues in 2011 were larger than Nike, Halliburton and Xerox. It was hard for these mid market firms to survive. I wouldn't get too attached to Loehmann's, if I were you. 

So, where's the best place to get a discount? 
Anywhere that you know the sales assistant. What staggered me most? The best deal is the one you wrangle yourself. Operate from a mindset like this: stores will do almost anything to close a sale. Floorwalkers are on commission in almost any store, and they want to sell an extra pair of shoes to pump up their monthly paycheck. Just ask! Say, very nicely, "Is that the best price you can do?" or "I wasn't planning on buying shoes today and I feel terrible. I want them so much, though. Is there any flexibility on price?" You could even put on a funny foreign accent. Bloomingdales in NYC, Chicago, Miami and San Francisco has an official program that offers a 10% discount on purchases to "visitors" of whatever kind. 

Clever! Why are people obsessed with "getting more for less" these days?
It's simple. There’s just too much stuff in the world. In America, for example, brick and mortar retail space has increased at a steady clip of around 4 percent each year since the early Eighties, while the population over the same period has climbed just 1 percent. There are too many sellers and not enough buyers. The supply-demand curve has been inverted for the first time. And once people realize they're in the pole position, they started expecting concessions. Until the last decade, shoppers were like the contestants on The Bachelor, hopping to be picked. Now, they're the Bachelorette.

What's your professional background?
I've been trying to write smartly about stupid things for more than a decade, covering froth in all its forms: fashion, travel, art, nightlife. I took all that research and those contacts and put them to work for Bargain Fever. I didn’t use my experience in the art world, which is a little too rarefied. Though for an industry that seems so glamorous and genteel, haggling is more widespread in the art world than at a Turkish bazaar, and probably more ruthless. 

What's your next book?
Good question. Hopefully, I'll have to create a Bargain Fever sequel, explaining how to apply all the know-how you've gleaned from the book and reduce monthly bills by 50 percent or more.  

How did it feel to sign your first copy of the book? Who did you sign it for?
A small cadre of my cronies in NYC donated huge amounts of professional time and expertise to help me in my research, and I knew I owed a few of them copies as soon as the book was in my hands. The first copy I signed was for a friend who'd been one of the sounding boards for a chapter on real estate. I'd forgotten to do that, and I ended up scrawling on the cover page perched on a bench on the subway. It reminded me that life as a published author is no more glamorous than it was before. 

Do you collect coupons yourself?
I used to think that life was too short to cut coupons - then I met the woman who makes $1m a year cutting them and reselling them to lazy, discount-minded shoppers across the country. Frankly, though, I'm more of an online buyer so it's a case of Googling not scissoring; every time I click checkout online and haven't managed to finagle some coupon, I feel swindled. Don't you? But there's a fantastic new app for that. Install the button on your browser and hit it any time you're hovering on a product page. It will claw the web for any promos available, anywhere. I've managed to snag 20 percent off and 20 percent off a gift at Kate Spade that way. 


What's the last big discount you received?
On a flight to London, I saved $200 on the ticket because I gamed the system. Seats are often sold on the same flight by two different companies—it’s known as codesharing. Two browsers open simultaneously: in Safari, an economy seat on the route sold by Delta, at, as a codeshare is $1257. In Firefox, exactly the same seat on the same route, sold by Virgin at, was $1057. I saved around 18 percent by knowing that simple trick.

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