Cate Michels of La Crosse, Wis., watched skeptically on the opening day of the Minnesota State Fair as the pitchman for a veggie slicer ticked off the gadget's best features.
"I could probably buy it cheaper online," she said. "And do I really want to carry it around all day?"
While Michels admits that she can be a hard sell at the fair, Mary Gorman of Minneapolis finds many good deals there, such as the Ratchet Pruner she bought several years ago in the Horticulture Building.
"It's the best pruner I've ever had," she said as she watched the spiel for the slicer.
Are State Fair specials really special or just fair? It's a little bit of both.
After touring "As Seen on TV Land" in the grandstand, the Dairy and Horticulture buildings and the coliseum this year, we found good deals large and small as well as pitches for products not worth carting around.
A HOT DISH: What's the best way to find out how good a deal is? Sometimes, it's simply to ask, "Can I get it for less outside the fair?" The vendor at the Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Council in the Dairy Building said no. The council charges $4 for a 1-pound bag of cultivated wild rice, but you'd pay almost $6 at Cub or $8 at Byerly's, she said. A price check showed she was right.
Verdict: Worth carrying around for the 25 to 50 percent savings.
KEY TO A PIANO DEAL: Showing up on the first day of the fair has advantages. Some vendors start with limited supplies of closeout specials. At Schmitt Music on the main floor of the grandstand, a Kawai CP139 digital piano was $2,988, regularly $6,160 in the store. It was a special price that Schmitt got from Kawai after missing shipments due to the tsunami, said Edina store manager Mark Mueller. Only 15 were available, and 10 were sold the first day. Online reviews for the piano are positive, and Web prices are about $6,000 plus shipping.
Verdict: A great deal for early birds.
SOAK OR BE SOAKED: Can a big purchase net big savings at the fair? Maybe, but not at Twin City Jacuzzi on the second floor of the grandstand. The price quoted on the Jacuzzi 345 hot tub was $8,685 (regularly $11,640), which included the cover, lift, steps, delivery and setup. But shop or call around for any major purchase. The State Fair special at the Jacuzzi dealer in Des Moines, for example, is $8,400.
Verdict: Haggle for an even better price after shopping other dealers.
GOT YOUR NUMBER: Salesman Tom Ferguson at the Sleep Number mattress store on the main floor of the grandstand quickly sized me up as a deal hunter. When I said I wanted a pillowtop, he took me to a "great deal, good only at the fair." It was the limited edition queen-sized iLE mattress for $2,610 (including setup and delivery). After I regained my composure that a $2,600 mattress is a bargain, I called the Maplewood store, where a salesman quoted me $2,690.
Note: Most Sleep Number beds have a 30-day money-back guarantee, but the State Fair limited-edition specials have a 45-day exchange. No refunds.
Verdict: Slightly better deal at the fair.
GIANT SAVINGS: The Little Giant ladder dealer on the second floor of the grandstand is selling a Model 17 (4- to 15-foot extension) for $359 including shipping ($430 at www.littlegiantladder.com) and the Model 22 (5- to 19-foot extension) for $399 ($470 online).
While the fair special saves 15 percent, there are cheaper versions from Little Giant at Costco and Sam's Club. Costco sells a MegaLite model for $200 with the same 300-pound weight limit, but the steps and width are narrower and the hinges are different. It's similar to the Alta-One at the Little Giant website for $230. Sam's Club sells a smaller $150 model, which a Little Giant customer service rep compared to the Classic models.
Note: The ladders are shipped to your home at no extra cost at the fair or Costco.com.
Verdict: A small savings at the fair for higher-quality models, but cheaper ones at Costco and Sam's might do the job.