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How to successfully shop a “final sale” section

5 questions to ask yourself so you don’t wind up with stuff you hate.

An illustration shows a woman looking at a large red slot machine labeled “Final Sale.” Paige Vickers for Vox

“Extra 40% off!” If you’re like me, you love getting these emails from your favorite brands. And if you’re like me, you’re inevitably disappointed when you start browsing the sale section and realize everything is marked “final sale.” Do you take a risk and buy something that might not work out? Or do you skip the sale altogether?

“Final sale” means no returns or exchanges. Retailers use the tactic to get rid of excess inventory or last season’s stock. And retail experts say final sales may become more common as retailers deal with swollen inventories caused by supply chain issues and consumers seeking different kinds of merchandise.

“Final sales can be a way to snag some of the deepest bargains out there,” says Kristin McGrath, a shopping expert at coupon site RetailMeNot. “You’ll often find them on super-out-of-season merchandise — think those bathing suits and patio furniture that are still not sold by October. But the rub is that you generally can’t return this stuff. Final sale means literally final.”

Not accepting returns is a cost-saver for retailers. Processing and restocking product returns is expensive for brands, and some returned inventory ends up getting thrown away. Last year, more than $760 billion in merchandise, or 16.6 percent of all US retail sales, was expected to be returned by shoppers, the National Retail Federation estimated. That’s about 6 percent higher than in 2020.

“It’s not cost-effective to the retailer to slash prices so low but then also accept the costs of taking returns, especially on items so out of season they won’t be able to sell them to anyone else,” McGrath says.

For shoppers, final sales are a gamble. Deep discounts are attractive, but you’re taking a chance if the clothing doesn’t fit or the furniture doesn’t look quite right. However, if the price is low enough, it might be worth the risk. Shopping experts offered a few tips for shopping final sales without getting burned — and ideas for what to do if you end up with an unwanted or unusable item.

How to shop a final sale

Always read the fine print when shopping sales, says Trae Bodge, a shopping expert based in Montclair, New Jersey, who has mixed feelings about final sales and shops them sparingly. Items are typically marked “final sale” on product pages or in your shopping cart. In stores, signs often note final sales. When in doubt, double-check with the retailer, she says. Here are five questions to ask yourself:

1. Why do you want to buy something?

“Cheap is never a reason to buy anything,” says Vanessa Valiente, a personal stylist and fashion blogger in San Diego. Before you buy anything, especially when it’s final-sale, think about whether it’s something you really need or want. Consider, too, that it’s often wasteful and potentially harmful to the environment to buy things you potentially can’t use.

Avoid shopping when you’re overemotional, says Erica Seppala, a shopping and retail expert at business product comparison site Merchant Maverick. Retail therapy, whether you’re happy or stressed, often leads to impulse buying and spending more. “I recommend shopping when you’re feeling kind of neutral and levelheaded to make smart purchasing decisions,” she says.

2. Are you familiar with the retailer or brand?

Stick with brands that you know well. If you own several items from a clothing brand and are confident about your size, ordering something in another color on final sale is a great way to get a deal, Bodge says.

Use final sales, too, for items that you’ve seen in person at a store. Valiente says she often tries on clothing in stores, takes pictures of herself wearing items, and orders them online once they go on sale since she knows what size to buy.

3. Have you done your research?

For clothing, measure yourself and compare it to size charts. For other items, like home decor, toys, or pet items, always read all product details, including size, dimensions, materials, and cleaning directions. Also, read reviews. Other customers will note if the color is off or the sizing runs big or small. McGrath suggests looking for reviews with photos, which show how clothing looks on a non-professional model’s body or how a throw pillow looks in different lighting.

Look up reviews from bloggers or YouTube videos about the product to gather as much information as possible, Bodge says. “That extra research can be helpful in ensuring that you’re making the right choice, rather than taking a risk with a final sale.”

4. Did you ask a friend?

Not sure whether to buy something on final sale? “Enlist a shopping partner,” Seppala says. Send links to products or photos of yourself trying something on in a dressing room to a friend, sibling, or spouse to get their opinion. They might remind you that you have three other black dresses similar to that one, or that you don’t need another set of dishes. “Having someone that can hold you accountable and help you stay levelheaded,” will help you avoid impulse buys, she says.

5. Are you getting the absolute lowest price?

Just because something is on final sale doesn’t mean it’s the lowest possible price, Bodge says. Using coupon sites, like CouponCabin or RetailMeNot, or cash-back apps, like Rakuten or Ibotta, could save you even more. “If you see that there’s something final-sale that you definitely want to get, take a moment to go to a coupon site to see if there’s a coupon or cash-back offer that can be applied on top of that final sale,” she says.

Seppala suggests also asking retailers about student or military discounts. And sign up for a brand or retailer’s reward program, which might let you earn points for discounts on future purchases.

What to do with products you get stuck with

Shopping final sales involves taking a risk, so think about whether you’re willing to deal with the hassle of getting things you can’t use. “Ask yourself honestly if the price is low enough that you won’t be upset if the item isn’t perfect,” McGrath says. If you do get stuck with unwanted items, there are some things you can do.

First, regift the items to others in your life who might like them for birthdays or holidays. But be thoughtful about it, Seppala urges — don’t just wrap it up, slap a name tag on it, and give just to give. Make sure it’s truly something the recipient would appreciate. Otherwise, they’ll be stuck with something they don’t want, and the cycle continues.

Or, resell purchases on sites like Facebook Marketplace, Poshmark, Mercari, and The RealReal, or at local consignment shops. Keep in mind that there are usually fees associated with reselling, and it can be time-consuming.

Donating items in good condition to local homeless shelters, domestic violence organizations, or other charities is another option. And some retailers, like Madewell, Target, and Staples, offer discounts to consumers who donate items to be recycled.

Sometimes making small alterations will make a final-sale purchase work for you. For instance, have a jacket tailored or paint a bookshelf that’s not the right color, McGrath says.

As a last resort, contact a retailer about taking the item back. Final sale usually means final sale, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask. Just be courteous and apologetic. Exceptions may sometimes be made for damaged items, those with misleading product descriptions, or when the customer genuinely didn’t know something was final-sale. In these cases, retailers might be more willing to offer store credit or merchandise exchange, rather than a full refund.

“It’s worth a shot,” Bodge says. “Some retailers have very hard and fast policies about that. But it’s obviously important to retailers to retain the consumer, instead of making them so upset that they never come back.”

Erica Sweeney is a business and health journalist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Men’s Health, Good Housekeeping, Business Insider, and more.

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