Break Away From the Retail Calendar and Save Big on Your Wardrobe

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Two women clothes shopping
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In America, there are two important calendars: there's the regular, Gregorian calendar, with its twelve months and 365 days. And then there's the retail calendar -- the schedule of how and when we are supposed to spend.

The retail calendar is a little less predictable than the Gregorian one. Some of its dates -- like Christmas, Black Friday, and Valentine's Day -- are absolutes. They signify major shopping events and big cultural occasions, when people exchange gifts, shoppers stay up all night, and roses double in price.

But other dates are more variable, shifting according to weather and region, politics and fashion. For example, while mid-October is more than two months away from Christmas, many retailers believe that isn't too soon to start pushing Christmas gifts. Some customers, of course, disagree, and the battle between the two has defined autumns for years.

The same back-and forth holds true when it comes to seasonal retail. For example, in temperate climates, winter coats are usually on shelves by mid-October, at the latest. Of course, cold weather sometimes takes a little longer to arrive; thus, even though you may still be wearing T-shirts and shorts well after school is back in session, when that first fall chill comes and you find yourself realizing that summer is over, stores are already prepared, with cold weather gear on the floor.

There's a lot to be said for following the retail calendar. For example, if you buy an overcoat in October, you have your pick of the litter. Store shelves are covered in the latest styles, in a rainbow of colors and a plethora of sizes. On the other hand, that incredible selection and convenience comes at a cost: If you find the perfect coat in October, you'll most likely pay full price to take it home.

Over the course of winter, stocks dwindle and prices fall. By February -- the official start of retail's spring season -- most stores are offering nice discounts on their winter coats. By March, those coats still on the racks are discounted to bargain basement levels.

By then, the selection won't be all that impressive. Crazy coats in unfashionable colors will be available in all sizes, while the style you want in the color you desire will only exist in double extra large and extra small. Of course, if you wear one of those outlier sizes, the world can be your oyster at that point in the cycle, but if you're more toward the middle of the range, you'll have to search far and wide to find something suitable. But success means that when next winter rolls around, you won't need to buy when prices are at their peak.

And then, of course, there's the obvious caveat that your clothes may be a bit out of style. As with anything else, however, this varies a bit. And it's less of an issue for some of us than others. While the "YOLO" T-shirt your teen has her eye on will (hopefully) look pretty dated a year from now, khakis and duffel coats never really go out of style. If you manage to luck into a good price on a clothing classic, you should be able to wear it for years.

There are also ways to game the shopping cycle. For starters, it's not all that hard to find a breakdown of the retail calendar, which can give you a good idea of when the prices on your favorite items will drop, and when you can expect them to sell out. And other sites, notably WiseBread, offer predictions on where the sweet spot will be between low prices and low selection.

You can also use online stores to extend the retail calendar a little longer. After all, while your local retailer may be out of a particular style or size of your favorite garment, their website may still have it in stock. And, given that many retailers now ship for free, you may be able to get exactly what you're looking for, even if you're buying late in the season.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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