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6 Secrets to Saving More at Discount Stores

Dana Dratch

Shopping on a budget doesn't have to mean relegating yourself to secondhand stores or flea-market finds.

You can score some deep discounts on new, name-brand merchandise at your favorite discount retailers or warehouse clubs -- if you follow a few tricks.

Whether you prefer mass-market discount stores, membership clubs or a little of both, there are deals to be had. We asked a handful of insiders and veteran shoppers for their bargain-shopping secrets.

1. Play 'spot the marketing'

Want to be less vulnerable to a store's marketing gimmicks? Learn to spot them.

"As you walk in the door, recognize why things are put where they are," says Paco Underhill, author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping" and founder of Envirosell, a retail marketing research and consulting firm.

"There's a reason the bakery and flowers are put up front, which is to get your nose and salivary glands working," he says.

One old trick to short-circuit those attempts to entice is to make a shopping list before hitting the store. Then, "When you walk through the door, think about what you truly need," Underhill says.

If you repeatedly shop at the same stores, you know the layout; use that to your advantage, says James Burroughs, a commerce marketing professor at the University of Virginia.

"Don't just wander," he says. "Have a plan of attack."

And don't undermine your own willpower. One skill you need when you shop -- especially in stores that sell in bulk -- is self-control.

"Never shop tired, and never shop hungry," says Underhill. "We don't have the same discipline when we're tired and hungry that we would like to have."

2. Shop before you join

Want to cut the fees associated with membership clubs?

Make sure it's a club you really want to join before you pay that annual membership.

Just like a health club, scope it out a few times before committing, preferably on the same day and time you'd actually be shopping. That way, if the Saturday morning warehouse-club crowd sends you running to the relative peace of your nearby grocery store, you'll have saved money by not joining.

If you love the club but hate the fees, consider sharing that membership with family members or friends. But check store policies first to make sure you're not infringing on the rules.

Sharing a membership, carpooling to the store and even divvying up some of those bulk sizes among a few households are all good ways of stretching reduced costs even more.

"Savings (means) you have to spend in the first place," Underhill points out. You save even more if you don't buy what you don't need, he says.

3. Beware of large carts

"If you have a large cart, that's going to invite you to add more items to your cart," says Burroughs.

It's a mind trick. The big cart makes it look like you've picked up less, he says -- and that will cause you to buy more.

If you know you're going to get just a few items, take a smaller cart or a hand basket, says Burroughs. "Psychologically, it forces you to limit how much stuff you buy," he says.

Another way to limit the stuff you buy: Pay in cash. Estimate the cost of what you plan to buy, and bring only that amount. This way, you won't be able to go over the amount you have on hand. Think of discount stores or membership clubs like a casino, and take only what you're prepared to spend.

4. Carry a calculator (app) when you shop

When it comes to items you use in large quantities -- such as diapers, wipes and formula -- the best buys often are in bulk, says Alan Fields, co-author of "Baby Bargains."

But which bulk buy is your best bet? That's where math comes in, he says.

"Each store carries different-sized packages," so comparing the cost of one package to another doesn't help, he says. Instead, zero in on the cost per unit or ounce.

Once you've done that a few times, he says, "You should know what a good price is."

For instance, with diapers, the low tends to be 17 to 18 cents each, while the high is around 26 cents, Fields says. "Everybody else falls in between there," he says.

Once you've leveled the playing field, you're in a position to shop among stores and brands for the best bargains, he says.

5. Long walks often mean better prices

In "many stores, bargain centers are in the back of the store," and discount stores are no different, says Underhill. "The purpose is to pull us as deep into the store as possible."

With traditional big-box retailers, "It's the reason the milk and the meat are in the back corners," he says.

Ever go into a discount store and see those big displays in the middle of the main aisles? That's "action alley," says Underhill. Makers and distributors "often pay for the privilege of being there, and the prices are aggressive," he says.

In club stores, the best deals are sometimes on pallets in the middle of the store, he says.

"Membership stores, often governed by space constraints and the fact that those large club stores stock such an incredible range of products, (put) many of the bargains into what they call 'center court,'" he says.

Underhill says those displays are less work for the store and often mean deeper discounts for the consumer.

6. Be realistic about your needs

Understand that warehouse and club stores encourage bulk buying, Underhill says, and that price at the register isn't your only cost.

He recalls one friend who bought so much meat in bulk that 18 months later, she still hasn't gotten around to eating it all and has it stored in her freezer.

If you really want to save money, "Buy what you need and consume what you buy," says Underhill. At first this may not sound like getting a bargain because you may actually spend a little more per ounce or unit, he says.

And when you calculate costs, don't forget to factor in the time, energy and money you use to shop, haul and store what you buy in bulk, says Kathleen Gurney, author of "Your Money Personality: What It Is and How You Can Profit from It."

Buy less and you'll also get fresher products with fewer storage hassles, Underhill says.

But if you're sold on buying bulk, make sure to portion the goods you get into easily usable sizes when you get home, he says. "And store what you're not going to use in a safe and secure place."