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

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Dec. 9 2008 7:24 AM

Shop Till They Drop

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

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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:

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  • 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.

Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.

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