Sacramento’s Best Bargains

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It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or always on a budget. Living better for less is its own reward. Great bargains are everywhere if you know where to look. Go to thrift stores and discount haunts. Cash in at ethnic markets. Get to know the rhythm of stores that stock buyout inventory. The smart money is what’s left in your pocket. Here, we look at some of the best buys, savviest strategies and top shops for the smart consumer.

• Asian Markets&emdash;I smile every time I head to Pacific Plaza Shopping Center. I can’t wait to get to the anchor tenant, SF Supermarket, a wonderland of ingenious buying, exotic and reliable food, practical gadgets, pretty Asian ceramics and cheap plastic bowls. Prices don’t just appear cheaper here. They are cheaper.

This giant store invigorates me. Food is fresh, meat butchered on site. Odd ingredients aren’t odd here. You’ll find Key limes in season, baby red bananas and fresh water chestnuts. The food’s definitely a draw, but am I all alone out here? Doesn’t everybody go dreamy in an Asian housewares aisle?

I love buying bamboo steamer baskets and cheap paring knives, picking up a spare steel cleaver, spying a new design in lightweight plastic mixing bowls. But mostly, I love prep bowls, about a buck each&emdash;what you’d recognize as dipping saucers for soy sauce. They come in Chinese and Japanese patterns, in celadon, porcelain and, of course, plastic with pink flowers. I don’t know what happens to your garlic after you’ve minced it, but mine waits its turn in one of these beautiful, tiny dishes. Same for chopped parsley and grated ginger.

My favorite bowls, colanders and measuring equipment are plastic cheapies, all from Asian stores. A huge red plastic colander ($3.59) goes with me to the garden to pick tomatoes or cut flowers. An enormous plastic bowl (about $4) is a second sink for soaking spinach. Best baby gift: plastic dishes with familiar red or blue Asian designs, just like the plates in restaurants. Friends with kids now in their 20s always remember those plastic presents.

Why is it I can find my way around this huge store better than a typical American grocery store? For one, I don’t stress out about silly presumptions of lifestyle, like patronizing health and natural categories. There’s no special kiosk for fringe products; 50 percent of the groceries here are fringe products.

Best of all, when limes are 69 cents each over in Carmichael, they’re practically guaranteed to cost less at SF Supermarket. One more thing: I live by a rule that no avocado should cost more than $1. I can’t remember ever having to walk out of an Asian market to uphold my belief.

• Target&emdash;In spring 1973, I was just out of college, had a new job and not much money to spare. I was drawn a few miles south of downtown Dallas to a store called Target.

Even then, it was hard to resist. It was the Costco of its day, a place to buy a bigger box of Tide. My Chevy Vega drank buckets of motor oil, so I’d pick up two cans of 30-weight at a time. But I wouldn’t dream of buying anything at Target that touched my body, like clothes or shoes.

I still feel that way about the shoes. But Target’s come a long way. So far, in fact, that I now shop there dreading I might get ripped off. How can a store with Michael Graves toasters and Isaac Mizrahi clothes sell things for less?

By putting it on 50 percent clearance.

You can walk out with a good haul if you buy exclusively from the clearance racks. Markdowns at Target are the best of all deals. Clothing, especially, cycles through fast. If you see an outfit, wait a few weeks, hope your size will still be available, and you stand a good chance of being rewarded with a markdown.

This is probably not news to most people. We’re all Target shoppers, and we all have Target stories. A $300 leather bench for the living room may not sound like a deal unless you know enough about furniture to realize it could sell for $800 or more someplace else.

Still, cheap is cheap. I found a serving platter of sailor-blue glass undulating in irregular waves for $7 about 10 years ago and used it for professional catering. Today, Target has the Asian look, the country look, the Target Home collection look. Four-hundred-thread count, 100 percent damask sheet sets for $59.99 are a serious deal. Porcelain serving bowls so versatile that chicken or pasta or cookies would look great in them are priced at just $12.99.

If you trust everything else, can trusting Target’s house label TruTech for electronics be next? If so, a 10-inch flat-screen HDTV will cost you only $199.

My best Target story happened last fall. A visiting friend had left her luggage in the trunk of her car back in Dallas. She alighted in Sacramento literally with the clothes on her back. At Target in Folsom, she navigated the same floor plan of Targets everywhere. In 45 minutes, she left with underwear (tops and bottoms), a nightgown, makeup, a toothbrush and toothpaste, three blouses, jeans and a skirt.   

The tab: $113. Not a bad way to start a vacation.

• Big Lots&emdash;I still bemoan a missed opportunity at Big Lots from years ago, when the store was
called MacFrugal’s.

If only I’d gotten that rolling plant stand . . .

The layout of each Big Lots is different, but the game’s the same. Products come and go. If you see a deal, you’d better get it.

I recently came home from Big Lots with a Harv Benard raincoat with the original tag: $106 retail. I paid $15. My son hates it because the green swirl design looks like the coat came in contact with battery acid. The first time I draped that label over a chair at a restaurant, I knew I’d shopped well enough to attract a few looks.

Not just a fashion headquarters with Jockey sleep pants ($2.99) and Calvin Klein jogging bras ($9.99), Big Lots is where I go for sturdy plastic tubs, organizing cubes, hangers (10 for 99 cents) and, if you can believe it, discounted Frosted Flakes, which I am hopelessly fond of and dare not keep too much of in the house. I’ve picked up a Ralph Lauren feather-down twin bed topper ($29.99&emdash;beat that, anybody!) and Egyptian cotton dish towels so finely woven they shine ($1.99 for a set of three). Clear shower-curtain liners are $1.99, which means even the skinflintiest can afford a fresh one every month. Kitchen timers that cost more than $8 anyplace else cost $4 here. Stainless-steel bowls start at 99 cents.

Check out the gardening equipment. Shovels, hoses and gloves cost less. You might see Fourth of July citronella pails already reduced.

Not all the inventory breezes in and out, but tools are sensational deals. A ginormous half-inch drill bit is $3.
There are handsaws, jigsaws, drill-bit sets, Irwin circular blades, cheap tarps and a 93-piece socket set (perfect for a gift, perhaps?). For a couple about to buy their first home, a screwdriver set for $5.99 will last them their entire lives.

And don’t forget to check out the food. Ten-cent ramen noodles and 79-cent salsa verde are typical of the deals here. I found a can of Africafe instant espresso from Tanzania and gifty wine vinegar in huge decorator bottles.

When I plan to paint, I go to Big Lots for paintbrushes, three-quarter-inch-pile rollers, trim gizmos and $1.99 paint trays. Corner brushes that shove paint into a 90-degree angle are 99 cents. And there’s no excuse to skimp on dropcloths. Big Lots sells them for 89 cents, so what the heck?

• Case Study: The Fashionable Bargain Hunter

-Ethne Smoot is a symphony in beige and black, wearing fully lined beige slacks and a beige twin set piped in black, black Evan-Picone spectator heels and black-and-gold earrings.

The cost of her outfit?

If you don’t count the $17,000 diamond ring on her hand, about $25.

Smoot, who works at Sacramento County Adult Protective Services as a senior office assistant, is a savvy fashionista, shopping almost exclusively at thrift stores and consignment shops. It’s a mind-set, she says. Not everybody is comfortable doing it. I am.

Smoot loves high fashion but not the high prices. She thinks paying retail is ridiculous. She relies upon solid middle-class cleverness to dress well.

All of this started when I decided not to take myself so seriously, Smoot explains. My mother says she cannot believe this, that she didn’t raise me like this. And I say, ‘But, Mom, this all works!’

Smoot is better at pulling outfits together than your average shopper. She figures out what’s in fashion by perusing magazines and window-shopping at upscale stores. Then she sets off in search of bargains.

Smoot arrives at Renaissance Fine Consignments in Fair Oaks and heads directly to the back of the store. Yes, even consignment shops have clearance racks. Start there and work your way forward, she says. You’ll find the art piece that just didn’t sell and lots of off-season things.

She’s willing to dig. Scarves, often piled in bins, are among her favorite finds. You’d be amazed at the scarves people get rid of, she says. She’s found silk Hermès scarves that originally retailed for more than $100 for as little as $6.

Smoot is always on the prowl for classic black pumps. Darling, she says, I wear only Italian shoes. To treat her feet to a pair of Amalfis or Bruno Maglis at a fraction of their retail cost, she haunts places such as Thrift Town and The Salvation Army Thrift Store.

Her best purchase of all time? A chartreuse linen jacket that she unearthed 10 years ago at Purple Heart, on clearance for 50 cents.

Somebody must have said, ‘What am I going to do with this color?’ I thought, even if I wear it once, how can you walk past something that costs 50 cents? Two weeks later, I’m in Nordstrom and I see chartreuse in the window. You can wear it with aubergine or black pumps and a black tank top and a
scarf. It’s still one of my favorite things to wear.

• Great Buys

-Dexter-Russell 8-inch chef’s knife
Good enough for a restaurant but priced modestly for a home cook. The indestructible polypropylene handle gives you a solid grip.
Store: East Bay Restaurant Supply, 522 N. 12th St.
Price: $17.99 (Negotiate&emdash;they’re used to it.)

-Cutting board
Cut from a tree stump, this 1-inch-thick Chinese chef’s circle chopping block is soft enough so the knife can go all the way through a basil leaf&emdash;leaving no knife marks. Lasts a lifetime.
Store: SF Supermarket, Pacific Plaza Shopping Center, 6930 65th St. Expressway
Price: $7.99

-5-quart cast-iron covered pot
This red hottie looks like pricey Le Creuset, weighs as much and does the cooking job just as well. With sidewalls as thick as two nickels, food won’t scorch&emdash;and neither will the price.
Store: Target (multiple locations)
Price: $39.99

-Area rug
Don’t make the mistake of putting small rugs in smallish rooms. This blue-and-white area rug excites 88 square feet of boring floor, even makes the room appear larger. At this price, it’s cheaper than carpeting.
Store: HomeGoods (multiple locations)
Price: $199
-Lucky bamboo
The blackest thumb will be lucky indeed with an arrangement of lucky bamboo. Stems always stay green, grow reliably, and curl
and coil to the ceiling if trained.
Store: Welco Supermarket, 7100 Fruitridge Road
Price: $2.50 for 2-foot-long stem, $9.50 for 5-foot-long stem

-Kitchen timer
The old-fashioned kind with a twist dial and a loud bell, from Sunbeam, can be marked up to sell from $8 to $11.
Store: Big Lots (multiple locations)
Price: $4

-Bamboo bowl
You can’t beat this lacquered bowl’s striking good looks. Use it for salad, chips, chicken over rice.
Store: Target (multiple locations)
Price: $12.99

-Lux loppers
The homely garden tool with the homely name couldn’t be more beautiful than these 28-inch bypass loppers. With lovely handles made of ash controlling wicked blades of carbon steel, is it too beautiful? Not for the price.
Store: Tuesday Morning (multiple locations)
Price: $14.99

-Indian bedspread
Each sturdy cotton bedspread is one of a kind, no two patterns alike.
Store: Nadeau, 1135 Richards Blvd.
Price: $17.25

-Saffron
These dried aromatic stigmas of the crocus plant are the cooking world’s most precious spice. You have to ask for it; it’s behind the counter at the checkout.
Store: Mediterranean Market, 1547 Fulton Ave.
Price: $2.29 for 2 grams

• How To Be a
Thrifty Shopper

It’s a good strategy to shop at the secondhand stores where affluent people tend to donate. Check these out:

-Discovery Shop (pictured)&emdash;Of California’s 41 Discovery Shops, this Marconi Avenue location is the mother ship. It recently tripled in size, taking over the vacant shop next door. The place teems with shoppers who know they can find top-quality clothing sorted three times before it hits the floor. Designer duds get their own rack; you’ll find high-end labels such as Escada, Armani, Burberry, Alfred Sung and St. John Knits. Sometimes, the store gets a shipment of new, upscale furniture donated by its across-the-street neighbor, Scofield’s. Volunteers who price the inventory are knowledgeable about fashion, art and furniture. Proceeds go directly to the American Cancer Society.
2744 Marconi Ave., Sacramento; (916) 484-0227

-Second Season Thrift Shop&emdash;A quiet, carpeted refuge of style, grace and good organization. Clothing is sorted by size rather than by color, and is cleaned and ironed. Find swimsuits from Jones New York, shoes from Ferragamo and fashion from Bebe, Chico’s and Herman Geist, along with fine linens and pillows. No musty odor. Proceeds benefit the Assistance League of Sacramento.
2528 Yorktown Ave., Sacramento; (916) 488-0828

-WEAVE Thrift Store&emdash;Walk out with six pairs of jeans for $25 made by DKNY, Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne or Talbots. Clothing is displayed by category (pants, tops, jeans) and then by color. A rack chock-full of black slacks makes it easy to pack your closet with one more pair. Dressing rooms are not posh, but they afford privacy. The huge space allows the store to carry furniture, too.
6634 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael; (916) 481-6376

-Second Hand Rose&emdash;This store is run by volunteers Carol and Harry Loew, retired professional retailers who are picky about what they accept for resale. The shop is immaculate and organized like a boutique. A designer section shows off Escada, St. John Knits, Armani, Donna Karan, Adrienne Vittadini, plus vintage clothing from Castleberry and Jaeger. New clothing comes from a Hollywood clothing manufacturer that donates its overstock, labels intact. Proceeds benefit Jewish Family Service.
6040 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael; (916) 487-4500                                            

*Gale Brodie’s tips on being a great shopper:
-Don’t carry a big purse. You need your hands free.
-Flip through magazines and rip out pictures of things you love and things you hate. Knowing your dislikes will allow you to sail past those items in the store.
-Know intimately a store’s return and refund policies.
-If buying consigned or secondhand furniture, smell it. The smell of cigarette smoke never goes away.

• Case Study: The Thrifty Decorator
Some people get high on shopping. Others get high on shopping well.

Getting what you want for less, there’s no better feeling, says Gale Brodie, an investment adviser for AIG.

When I walk out of a store with a great deal, it’s such a sense of ‘gotcha,’ she says. And if she’s ripped off? Then it’s shame on them, shame on me.

Brodie doesn’t get ripped off much anymore. She’s gotten really good at a lifelong game of her own design. I like nice things, she explains. I just don’t like to pay for them.

Her Elk Grove home brims with beautiful things she got for less: flea market finds, Asian platters, burled maple furniture found at a consignment store.

One of her favorite haunts in Elk Grove is HomeGoods, a discount home-furnishings chain owned by TJX, parent company of Marshalls and T.J. Maxx. She heads toward the glassware and platters. Don’t carry a big purse, she admonishes. You need your hands free.

She spots a Vera Wang vase and checks the price. She saw it at Macy’s for $100. Here, it’s $40&emdash;still too expensive for what it is. Plus, she doesn’t love it.

Knowing what you hate can be instructive, she says.

Brodie offers the following exercise:

Flip through magazines and catalogs. Rip out pictures of what you love and what you hate, and place the pictures in separate piles. Take a good look at the hate pile. You may find out things about yourself you didn’t know, she says.

The psychology lesson over, she says to learn math. Brodie heads to the rug department. HomeGoods hangs them from sturdy brackets. She finds a crewel rug in colors she favors.

Here’s an 8-by-10 rug for $199. That’s $2.50 a square foot, she computes in her head, pleased. That’s cheaper than having carpet installed. She explains that these rugs are not meant to be heirlooms, yet aren’t of inferior quality. When you get tired of it in five years, you haven’t spent the family fortune, and you’ll feel better about changing it later if you want to.

Throughout the store are clearance aisles. Just because it’s on sale doesn’t mean it’s fabulous, she says.

She spots a number of Bernhardt chairs, original factory labels intact, for about $350 apiece. She knows such chairs can retail for up to $2,000. Deal or no deal? She walks away. Do I love them? she asks. No. I’d have to re-cover them.

Brodie likes to put fine things in places you’d least expect. She leaves HomeGoods with a shot glass of 24 percent lead crystal she found for $1.99&emdash;about the price of a plastic measuring cup. Brodie does not use plastic measuring cups. The shot glass is dispatched to the laundry room, where it will be used to measure fabric softener.

Nice things.             

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