AH, SPRING: When a shopper's mind turns to flip-flops, skimpy summer dresses and pastel jackets.
Big mistake — at least for those who are looking for a bargain.
Good deals do abound during the spring months. Those who still have the fortitude to seek out warm sweaters, space heaters and other cold-weather merchandise will find them at clearance prices. But not all seasonal deals are so obvious. Here's our guide of what's best to buy between March and June, on the cheap:
All-Weather ClothingIn May, look for wardrobe staples like black suits and heavy trench coats at clearance prices, says Kathryn Finney, author of "How to Be a Budget Fashionista." "With the weather getting warmer, most people just aren't looking for these items," she says. But a well-made suit or lined trench can be worn through three of the four seasons in many parts of the country.
BoatsMarch marks the end of the winter boat shows and the beginning of the boating season. "People start thinking about getting out on the water," says Thomas Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, a trade group. You'll find sales on the unsold new models at shows, plus plenty of previously owned boats on the market (as their owners ogle new boats at the shows, or decide the summer slip fee just isn't worth it anymore).
Children's FormalwearStores pull out the formal attire for babies and toddlers just twice a year — at Easter and Christmas, says Alan Fields, co-author of "Baby Bargains." If you have a wedding or other fancy event to attend with baby before November, now's your best chance of picking up a suit or dress for a fraction of the regular retail price.
CondimentsHow many bottles of ketchup do you really need? Manufacturers know you'll probably pick up one to get you through the summer picnic and barbecue season — and they want it to be their brand, says Teri Gault, founder of The Grocery Game, a site that helps consumers maximize savings by pairing in-store sales and manufacturer's coupons. Look for pre-Memorial Day sales of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, pickles and other picnic must-haves. By planning ahead, you can stock up without paying more than half price.
Designer "Resort" ClothingWith so-called "resort collections," high-end labels have essentially created a fifth season, says Finney. These collections debut in January, when wealthy consumers are heading off to tropical locations. By late March, what's left is on sale — just in time for warming temperatures at home. "It's perfect for those of us who don't have a second home in Saint Tropez," she quips.
Ham and Pork Products
Smart shoppers know to pick up an extra turkey at Thanksgiving, when the tasty birds are at their cheapest per-pound price. At Easter, the equivalent best buy is ham, says Gault. "But they're slaughtering an awful lot of pigs to get those hams," she notes. So look for sales on other pork products, including chops and bacon, as butchers aim to sell off the rest of the pig.
Lost PropertyWe've got two words for you: holiday gifts. Both the airlines and the Post Office hold unclaimed or lost items for a minimum of 90 days, then sell them off. That means bags and packages lost around the holidays are just making their way back to the public in late March, early April — and for a fraction of the price. Post Office packages are auctioned off at mail recovery centers in Atlanta and St. Paul; lost airline luggage makes its way to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Ala.
PearlsBetween graduations, weddings and Mother's Day, there are plenty of suitable occasions to give pearls as a spring gift, says Antoinette Matlins, author of "Jewelry & Gems: The Buying Guide." Look for sales from late April through May as retailers pitch them again and again as gifts.
Real EstateIf you're looking solely at price, well, winter tends to have the best real estate deals, says Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors. But if you want the three-bedroom house with the white picket fence, marble countertops and two-car garage, the combination of both selection and price just doesn't get any better than in the springtime. "It's supply and demand," says Molony. In spring, more houses go on the market as families look to make their move between school years. That gives buyers an edge to find the right place. And there aren't as many buyers as in summer and fall, so you won't face quite as much competition when you find your dream place.
The market has been particularly sluggish this year, says Molony. As a result, sellers have been offering buyers incentives from covering closing costs and buying down mortgage points to providing gift cards and expensive vacations.
Strollers"The 2007 stroller models are just coming out [in April]," says Fields. That means the 2006 models are on clearance. "Of course, no one can tell the difference between an '07 and an '06," he jokes. You're not buying an unsafe or outdated model, that's for sure. Usually, the only differences are in fabric patterns, he says — blue pinstripes, for example, instead of blue polka dots.
Vacuums"It's a spring cleaning thing," says Carolyn Forte, homecare director for the Good Housekeeping Institute. Between March and May, there are more sales on vacuum cleaners than during any other season, she says.