Judging from the hyper-excited tone of consumer news stories and ads these days, you might think that everything is on sale at prices never seen before and never to be seen again. While that might be true of big-ticket purchases such as homes and new cars, is it really true about other goods? Should you buy now or will the price be the same or lower after the recession? We asked local experts to advise us on eight items thought to be great deals.
Few segments of the economy have been hit as hard as housing and home furnishings. Pat Fleetham, who was in the Twin Cities furniture business 35 years as owner of ReFurnish, said that many furniture stores foresaw the decline two years ago and adjusted their inventories. The 20, 30 or 50 percent storewide sales you're seeing now aren't necessarily better deals than before and may in some cases be worse. Fleetham believes the best deals are in stores' outlets or clearance rooms such as the Room & Board outlet in Golden Valley, Gabberts Odds & Ends room in Edina, and Hom clearance rooms in Coon Rapids, Lakeville and Plymouth. Comparison-shop for the lowest prices.
HOLD: LOBSTER AND OTHER SEAFOOD
Don't get pinched by reports that lobster is a great deal now. It depends on what kind of lobster, said Tim Lauer, general manager at Coastal Seafoods. Lobsters are cheaper now than a year or two ago, but live lobsters selling for $4 per pound are soft-shell with less flavor and more fat, because lobsters molt when the water is warmer from now to early September. Wait until the hard-shell live lobsters are back in season in October through December, he said. Last year, live lobster was $10 a pound at Christmas, the lowest price in 20 years. Right now, wild shrimp and crab are priced about 30 percent lower than last year.
HOLD: DIGITAL CAMERAS
No rush unless you need one. Consumer Reports credits the recession for low prices on electronics, but others say it's the natural cycle of lower prices on mature technology. The Consumer Electronics Association said that prices on the average digital camera have dropped $200 in three years, but that's mostly because 77 percent of all U.S. homes already own a digital camera and few feel the need to upgrade. Expect prices to continue sliding about 10 percent per year, said Mike LaMotte, vice president at National Camera Exchange. Watch for even better sales on selected models as loss leaders.
Full-price boutiques and department stores are quicker to mark things down than in the past, but consumers are flocking to off-price retailers and consignment shops. Chad Olson, chief operating officer at Clothes Mentor consignment, said that business is up 30 percent year-to-date in stores open one year. The women's clothing chain with stores in 10 states has locations in Maple Grove and Minnetonka and plans to open four more in the Twin Cities soon. Lyn Opitz, owner of Opitz Outlet in St. Louis Park, said the recession has given his stores a "second wind." Take advantage now, whether it's Macy's and Herberger's or Nordstrom Rack and Marshalls.
Whether it's airfare, hotels or cruises, travel is an undisputed bargain. Some airfare bargains can just as easily be attributed to new competition from Southwest as the economy, said local travel expert Terry Trippler. Consumers looking for deals on hotel rooms should sign up for e-mail alerts. In Las Vegas, for example, Caesar's Palace rooms were recently only $49 per night and MGM Grand offered two nights free with the purchase of a third to their e-mail subscribers. Cruise travel is down significantly, said Roger Miller of Minnetonka Travel and Cruises in Wayzata. He's seen two-for-one deals from Viking River Cruises in Europe and unprecedented discounts on Alaskan cruises.
Wait until the holidays. LCD TVs are following the trend of VCRs and DVD players, said Doug Mamer, owner of East Lake TV in Minneapolis. The price drop is related to mass production, not the recession. A good LCD TV sells for $595 now, but it was $999 two years ago. By Thanksgiving, it will probably be even lower, he said. Plasma TV prices are down, too, as LCD has won the battle over plasma, but Mamer doesn't expect plasma prices to plunge. "Plasma is like Beta. Its customers think plasma is a superior product and will keep paying a premium until it dies," he said.
Computers, like TVs, have seen precipitous price drops. The competition among retailers, especially Wal-Mart, has kept prices low, said Khalid Mahmood, owner of General Nanosystems in Minneapolis. Consumers are getting more features and memory for less money. Laptops, desktops and especially memory are all cheaper. Demand is soft now but may pick up when Windows 7 is released. Two gigabytes of memory cost $100 two years ago. Now it's $25.