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Jessica DuBois-Maahs/MEDILL

Sale racks like the one in this Chicago Target, provide steep discounts for last-minute winter shoppers.

Chicago shoppers brave cold for smorgasbord of sales

by Jessica DuBois-Maahs
Jan 24, 2013


Jessica DuBois-Maahs/MEDILL

Stores such as Target are reducing prices on winter items to make room for spring collections.

Strategic shopping: Understanding a typical retail cycle

January - February

- Spring collection unveiled

- Winter collection is marked down


Late February - early April

- Summer collection unveiled

- Spring collection is marked down


Late May - August

- Fall collection unveiled

- Summer collection is marked down


August - late November

- Winter collection is unveiled

- Fall is slightly reduced


After Christmas

- Fall and winter collections go on sale

- After Christmas sales are great time to get discounts


In the middle of a Chicago Target women's section, amid empty hangers and clothes strewn on the floor, Lanita Schumacher uses two hands to hold her mounting pile of reduced-priced sweaters, coats and thick pants. She strategically selects last-season items to prepare for future seasons—and she is not alone.

She is surrounded by other bargain shoppers who whether by luck, laziness or cunning waited until temperatures dropped to single digits this week to buy normally expensive winter clothes at a steep discount. It is a sign that consumers have become particularly cost-conscious and tactical when purchasing seasonal goods.

This winter, bargain shoppers are hitting the jackpot. Chicago's unseasonably warm November and December sent some retailers into a panic early when their stockrooms remained filled with winter clothing. When the frigid weather finally hit, many stores already had reduced their winter collection prices by 50 to 75 percent.

Retailers have trained shoppers to wait for cold-weather apparel to go on sale, retail experts say. The markdowns usually begin before Christmas and are further reduced in January.

“I have three kids, so I'm always shopping in the bargain area,” Schumacher said as she picked up a small blue-and-gray-striped sweater marked down 70 percent. This year, she said, winter apparel discounts are dramatic high, so she is shopping.

Clothing stores push to get rid of dark, thick winter items by selling them for a fraction of their original price. It's an industry-wide effort to make room for swimsuits and flip-flops every year—and this isn't an anomaly. Store windows and mannequin displays lining Michigan Avenue and State Street frequently feature men and women in shorts, summer dresses and tank tops around this time of year. It's an odd background to bundled shoppers donning hats and scarves.

But for every bargain shopper that is getting a good deal, there is a Midwestern retail company taking a profit hit on some big-ticket winter clothes and fretting over its spring season's early release.

Many major Chicago retailers such as Target, Walmart and Kohl's unveiled their spring collections a few weeks earlier than usual because last year's record-breaking warm temperatures set a precedent for abnormally high spring sales, according to Bill Kirk, CEO and co-founder of Weather Trends International, a company that analyzes weather patterns for retail companies.

“Last year was so warm that Macy's was still selling coats until August because they couldn't get rid of that inventory,” Kirk said. “But it cannibalizes the next season.”

Chicago retailers that have already started pushing spring merchandise may have no choice but to mark down those spring items in the next several months when summer items arrive—setting off a further cycle of markdowns. And while many shoppers are no stranger to notoriously early fashion seasons, many stores were planning this year's spring inventory based on last year's high February and March sales, according to Kirk.
“A lot of our boots that once cost $140 are down to about $30 now,” said Laura Hunter, a manager at a Chicago Aerosoles store. At her location, shoppers also are passing up full-price spring merchandise and heading for the store's winter season clearance.

Weather analysts like Kirk are now predicting a bearish economic outlook for retailers going into spring—something bargain shoppers such as Samantha Blackman hope to benefit from.

Her shopping cart is filled with winter clothes sporting orange sale tags as she mulls over a rack of winter clothes marked half off at Target. “It pays to comparison shop,” Blackman said. She said she monitors the prices of certain items online until those items go on clearance, even if she has to wait a few months to purchase the item.

For the self-proclaimed bargain hunters such as Blackman, new smartphone applications are helping spot and track the best winter clothing sales. The applications are one way shoppers are getting the upper hand in seeing when additional markdowns occur.

Free barcode scanner applications such as ShopSavvy and RedLaser allow users to take pictures of price tags with their smartphone's camera to compare the current selling price with prices online and at other stores.

Target, for example, generally reduces its seasonal items based on consumer demand. This week's abrupt temperature drop suddenly increased demand for cold-weather apparel, and the reduced goods are flying out the door, according to Target representative Becca Banks.

Weather analysts are projecting coat sales will increase by 2 percent for every degree colder the temperature drops, according to Kirk. He said so far this week, Chicago is trending about 3 degrees colder than last year's temperatures.

The only downside for strategic shoppers such as Blackman and Schumacher is not always getting the color and size of an item they most want—something Hunter sees sale-hungry shoppers experiencing this week at Aerosoles.

She said pre-season shoppers who bought their winter boots in October or November might have paid more than this week's wave of clearance shoppers, but early shoppers benefited from a full inventory. “A lot of people who come in—especially our bigger sizes who are a 10 or an 11—are sad to find out that we are completely sold out of their sizes,” Hunter said. “It's good to come in early and make sure you get your size and that it’s available in the store.”

But many bargain shoppers are happy to take their chances, according Schumacher, who left Target with multiple bags. She rationalizes that an ill-fitting sweater may end up fitting at some point.

“I can buy it for next year,” Schumacher said while she adjusts her amassed pile of dark-colored sweaters intended for her three children. “One can wear it and then pass it down the next time.”

With a cart full of Target's discounted clothes on white, plastic hangers, Blackman listens to music and hums while she grabs different items from the half off rack. She said good deals put her in a good mood, adding with a smile, “It pays to wait.”