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How to be a smart shopper.

These days it takes more than bargain-hunting to get the best deals.

LET'S FACE IT. WE LOVE TO SHOP. TO acquire things. To savor "the good life." Our closets, driveways and family rooms all give clues about our spending prowess. But perhaps the official numbers tell the story best.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Expenditure Survey, African-Americans spent a stagering $216 billion in 1991 (the the latest year for which data is available). And just how did we part with these big bucks? Market researchers say that roughly $20 billion went to the clothes on our backs. That's second only to housing, which cost us $40 billion. We plunked down over $4 billion for consumer electronics, Another giant wallet-buster? Automobiles. Blacks spent more than $31 billion to acquire and maintain a set of wheels in 1991.

Unfortunately, for all our charging and check-writing, one thing is askew: our ability to get the best deals. Sometimes, we come up short because of circumstances beyond our control. For instance, a well-publicized Harvard Law Review survey reported in 1991 that blacks routinely pay more for cars than whites. Or, as we illustrated in our July cover feature, "How to Fight Against Mortgage Discrimination and Win," buying a home can be the ultimate nightmare. Even if we manage to find the right house at the right price, we're often denied access to a mortgage or entry into a particular neighborhood.

But there are other reasons why money seems to fly out of blacks' pockets at a faster clip than other ethnic groups. "Blacks are quality conscious and status conscious," notes Byron Lewis, chairman and CEO of UniWorld Group Inc., a black-owned New York City advertising firm, No. 14 on the BE INDUSTRIAL SERVICE 100. "Not only do we prefer to buy top-shelf, we tend to use 'the purchase' as one way of gaining equality in the marketplace - whether we can afford it or not."

With the cost of goods and services ever on the rise - the consumer price index has jumped 3.2% over the past 12 months - being a savvy consumer, not merely an avid one, is key. From a great rate on a credit card to a rock-bottom price on an overseas vacation, here are some strategies for smart shoppers determined to bag the better bargain.

Home Sweet Loan: Buying A House

A home is probably the biggest, most important purchase you'll ever make. Yet according to financial planner Jonathan Pond, author of 1,001 Ways to Cut Your Expenses and The New Century Family Money Book (both published by Dell Publishing Co., New York, $5.95 and $29.95, respectively), most first-time home buyers get at least mildly "taken" financially. The basic reason: "They're simply uninformed about the many nuances of the real estate market." When it comes to shopping for a home, therefore, knowledge is power.

Granted, blacks aren't always on a level playing field when it comes to obtaining a home loan, and there are ways to combat biased lending bureaucracies. But for starters, you need to make sure you're at the doors of the right institution.

Compare lenders' fees as well as interest rates when shopping for a mortgage. You may pay less overall by opting for a higher rate with fewer fees (such as points, paid up front as a percentage of the principal) attached. Ask your realtor to do a computer search for mortgages beyond the area in which you live. "You don't need to take a loan from a local bank - you may find a better deal from an out-of-town lender," says Pond.

Beware of a misleading marketing tactic known as "no-cost" financing or refinancing. "There is no such thing as a no-cost loan," warns Lawrence Byrne, vice-president of mortgage lending at Great Western Financial Corp. in Chatsworth, Calif. "The lender adds the fees to something - most likely, a higher interest rate."

Remember where your realtor's loyalties lie. Real estate brokers represent the sellers, not the buyers, and get paid on a commission basis. So while they may seem the discreet negotiator, don't forget that it is their job to get the highest price for the house they're showing. For this reason, you may want to consider a buyer's broker. Ask your banker to recommend such a pro, an advocate who can help you in both your home search and in final closing negotiations. For their services, expect to pay a flat fee of 2% to 3% of your target purchase price. Or, if you need more of a deal-closer than a house-hunter, you may be able to pay an hourly rate instead.) Savvy negotiators get the home sellers to pick up the tab for their buyer's broker.

For free information on buying a house, write the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81002, or call Great Western Financial (800-492-7587) and request the brochures How to Shop for a Loan and How to Shop for a Home.

Deals On Wheels: How To Shop For A Car

Unlike other major purchases (except a house), the price of a new car emerges only after a good bout of negotiating. Yet a growing number of dealers are getting complacent, betting that today's buyers prefer to drive off the lot without the stress of haggling. Is wheeling-dealing worth it, then? The answer is "yes." Most dealerships still welcome dickering. And earlier this year, a representative from Consumer Reports, which publishes an annual automobile-buying guide, found that buyers who bone up and bargain hard can shave hundreds, even thousands, off the sticker price.

Buy at the right time. "Buying your car late in its model year will nearly always net you a bargain," notes Pond. Towards the end of each model year, manufacturers and dealers are eager to clear out the old models to make way for the new. Thats your cue to spring into action, and save up to 5%.

Negotiate up from the dealer's price or invoice - not down from the sticker You can save thousands this way. "The sticker price rarely reflects what the dealer paid. There's usually a fair amount of profit built into it," explains Jerry Karbon, a spokesperson for the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), which sponsors a CarFacts buyer-information program for its members. To learn the dealer's cost, consult a pricing guide such as Edmund's New Car Prices or Edmund's Import Car Prices (St. Martin's Press, New York, $4.95 and $4.99, respectively). Or, for a computer printout comparing base prices and factory installed options - sticker versus dealer - for the make and model of your choice, phone Consumer Reports (303-745-1700; $11 for one printout, $20 for two).

For black car buyers in particular, there is much to gain from doing such homework. The 1991 Harvard Law Review study revealed that, when test shoppers negotiated prices on 180 cars in 90 showrooms in the Chicago area, the final offer for black men was double the markup for white men, and triple for black women. So knowing the dealer's price can give you a head start. Once you've got the prices from the dealers, make them bid against each other. Do it by phone to save time.

If you hate haggling, consider an automobile broker (check the yellow pages for listings) or a buying service such as Car Bargains (800-475-7283). For a fee of $135, the service will send a printout showing factory-invoice prices and a bid - in writing - from five dealers in your area, of the make, model and options that interest you. Robert Krughoff, president of the Washington, D.C.-based not-for-profit Center for the Study of Services, which owns Car Bargains, says that his service is getting below-invoice bids for many customers on best-selling models like the Ford Taurus and Honda Accord.

To finance your car, you can find the best deals on auto loans at credit unions. Last March, for example, credit union interest rates on new auto loans averaged 7.97%, while banks charged, on average, 8.5% (and dealers charged slightly more than that). For more information on joining a credit union near you, call CUNA at 800-358-5710. CUNA also publishes a brochure titled How Much Car Can You Afford? To get ft, write: New Car, CUNA P.R., P.O. Box 431, Madison, Wl 53701.

In Your Interest. Shopping For A Bank

Most consumer/banker relationships revolve around checking and credit card accounts. But are you getting as good a deal on yours as you should?

Choose a credit card issuer on the basis of how you use your plastic. If you pay the balance in full every month, the interest rate shouldn't matter, because you won't be carrying over any debt. On the other hand, if you're like most card users - 72% of whom carry over at least some debt - go for a card with a low interest rate. The rock-bottom rate today is 6.9% (compared with the highest rate, a heart-stopping 21%). Though some issuers insist upon a sterling credit history before giving you a low-rate card, the good news is that they don't usually require that applicants earn a big salary.

Even if your credit history is not impeccable, you probably have more bargaining power with your card issuer than you think. Many are willing to drop their interest rates or lower their annual fees to keep customers happy. "The banks need your business badly," explains Ruth Susswein, assistant director of Bankcard Holders of America, a nonprofit consumer group, "because they have to compete with giant credit-issuers like AT&T and GM."

Susswein suggests calling your bank and threatening to take your business elsewhere unless the bank banishes its fee or lowers its rates on your credit card. To got a list of low-rate and no-fee credit issuers nationwide, send $4 to Bankcard Holders of America, 560 Herndon Parkway, Suite 120, Herndon, VA 22070.

Alas, unless you've got really big bucks (say, a six-figure salary), the banks are far less willing to cut you a deal on checking-account fees and other services. Therefore, compare each bank's offerings carefully before opening an account These days, with rates so low, it doesn't pay to keep your funds tied up in a checking account unless you plan to meet the minimum balance requirements each month, says Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action, a nonprofit consumer education and advocacy group based in San Francisco. "You typically have to maintain a $2,500 balance in an interest-bearing account just to earn 2% on your money," he explains. "But a CD only requires a $500 or $1,000 deposit - and pays 3% to 4%."

Keep incidental fees-like charges for overdraft protection or using automated teller machines at another bank - to a minimum." Some banks charge as much as $2 per transaction to withdraw money from an ATM that is not art of our bank" McEldowney points out. And avoid so-called gold accounts that charge a flat fee regardless of your balance and offer frills such as $100,000 in accident insurance, or the ability to withdraw more from an ATM per day. "This is stuff that costs the bank virtually zip to provide," McEldowney says. "Stay away from them unless you absolutely need one."

A Buy On The Fly

How do you save a bundle when you want to take to the skies? By purchasing cheap air tickets. You can snare an air fare/vacation bargain in several ways.

Check out tour packages, which often offer bigger discounts than you can find on your own, especially if you plan a trip to Hawaii or the Caribbean. Discounts grow deeper still if you're traveling at the last minute, when operators are desperate to fill their seats. "But motor-coach tour costs can get very high," warns Ed Perkins, editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter ($37 per year; to order, call 800-234-1970). "You're better off traveling over land on your own."

One of the best ways to snare a low-cost flight is through the ticket agencies known alternately as consolidators or "bucket shops." Don't be put off by the name. Major airlines use bucket shops to quietly (and economically) fill their unsold seats to off-price dealers. Fliers, meanwhile, typically enjoy savings of 20% or more off the cost of a full-priced ticket. In the past, many bucket shops were considered shady outfits. But Perkins vouches for the industry, saying that the vast majority today are legit.

Bucket shops are the best places to get discount airfares to Europe in the summertime, and to Asia any time of the year. The safest way to shop the buckets is through a travel agency in your hometown; you'll find their ads printed in the travel section of your Sunday paper. The most reputable buckets deal solely with agents, Perkins points out. "And if there's any kind of problem, say, with the delivery of a ticket, your agent is on the spot to help."

If you are shopping the buckets yourself (again, consult the travel section of the Sunday paper), buy only confirmed seats, and make sure to get tickets for your outbound and return flights. Use a credit card; if there is a dispute about a refund, you are protected. Your card issuer will deal with the ticket agency.

Sign up with a courier service, and save another $100 to $150 off the cost of a bucket-shop ticket This applies if you're a light packer, like to travel solo, and don't mind winging it. Note the drawbacks: You can't check any luggage, and if you're traveling with a companion, he or she will probably have to buy a regularly priced ticket on the same flight. Even so, the savings can be substantial. To learn more about courier services, check out the excellent Insider's Guide to Air Courier Bargains: How to Travel World-Wide for Next to Nothing by Kelly Monaghan (The Intrepid Traveler, New York, $14.95).

Shop Till You Drop: Grabbing Bargains in The Stores

From big-ticket items like electronic gear to soft goods such as clothing - everything seems to be on sale these days. How do you snare the real deals, though?

For the best prices in electronic equipment such as a stereo or TV, shop the "superstores." Watch the ads for the specific model that interests you, comparison shop, and hold the stores to claims that nobody beats their prices - they will comply. That said, when it comes to stereo equipment, unless you know exactly what you're looking for, it may pay to go to a specialty store, spend a few dollars more, and get expert help, says Michael Riggs, the executive editor of Stereo Review

Mail-order companies (who advertise in specialty magazines like MacWorld or Stereo Review) offer good deals on stereo systems and computer gear; again, if you know exactly what you want to buy. Stick with companies whose ads you're familiar with (and that have been around for a couple of years). Always pay by credit card to protect yourself - and make sure whatever you buy comes with a warranty. Pass on those "extended warranties," however, says Riggs. They only tack on dollars to your purchase, and the likelihood of using such coverage is small.

When it comes to clothing, buy late in the season. "Stay out of stores in July and August if you're planning a fall wardrobe," says Alan Millstein, a retail consultant and editor of the newsletter Fashion Network Report. "The real savings on fall fashions come in October and November."

The best deals on spring clothing can be found in April and May. Summer clothing is on sale in July and August. September and October are great months to buy coats, when retailers are anxious to begin stocking their resort lines. The bargains are even bigger right after Christmas.

Another way to look great without breaking your budget is to haunt off-price retailers such as Marshall's and Filene's Basement Although off-price stores were once notorious for selling merchandise overruns or returns, Milistein insists, "Those days are over. Today they offer current designer merchandise, not last year's styles, at 25% to 35% off what you pay in a department store."

If you live near an outlet store - or better yet, an outlet mega-mall - go. "You'll typically save 30% to 60% off of retail prices," says Elysa Lazar, author of The Outlet Shopper's Guide (Lazar Media Group Inc. New York, $9.95) and a correspondent on CNBC's Steals and deals.

Two Last Bits Of Advice

Don't underestimate the impact of offering cash on the barrelhead. Especially for items you're sure you won't need to return. In small shops in particular, a wad of crisp bills and a "take it or leave it" approach is all it takes to seal a great, on-the-spot deal.

Always try to haggle, even when shopping department stores, no matter how you pay. Make sure you're jousting with the buyer or the manager, someone who has the power to give you a discount. "I did a piece on CNBC last year," Lazar recalls, "where we queried: 'Would you give me an additional discount if I bought most of my kid's wardrobe here? Or a table setting for 12, instead of four?' Most merchants told us they would - and added that most customers never ask."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Vreeland, Leslie
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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