WE were thinking of buying a Ping-Pong table a few months ago and checked prices. They seemed high and we put it on the back burner. Then my sons started clamoring for one again, so my husband checked online.
They were cheaper.
“Must be the off-season for Ping-Pong tables,” he said. I expressed doubt. (There is a Ping-Pong season?) But that lead me to wonder — are there any general rules of thumb about when the best time is to buy stuff?
So I turned to some experts and here’s what I found: The optimal time to find bargains is in the run-up to the season when the stores are flooded with merchandise and competition is fierce. Or alternatively, in the off-season when pickings are slim and no one is buying.
All right, that wasn’t very helpful. It may be better to break it down a little more by item. I’ll start with transportation.
Erin Huffstetler, who writes the Frugal Living Guide for About.com (which is owned by The New York Times Company), says there are three good times to buy bicycles: around Christmas, when a lot are available for the coming holiday; in March and April, when people are thinking about summer; and toward the end of October, when stores are looking to get rid of their extra inventory.
If you’re in the market for a car, Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for the car site Edmunds.com, suggests waiting until the end of the year — from September on.
“As we move toward Christmas, the new models come out,” he said. But, he said, “the deeper the discounts, the lower the inventory.” So you may not have much choice in color and models by the end of the year.
Another way to get a good deal, he said, is to shop for a car that has recently been redesigned. There will be big discounts on the design that has just been discontinued. Sometimes, purchasing at the end of the month, when dealers want to meet a quota, may give you a leg up. But don’t rely too much on car-buying folklore, Mr. Reed said, like waiting until closing time to get a bargain.
The bigger issue, he said, is that “people get distracted by what they see as inside stuff, when they haven’t investigated all the big stuff like financing and incentives.”
Just need tires? Ms. Huffstetler suggested that the best bargains on tires came in March and April, when drivers were considering road trips, and in the winter, when they wanted to prepare their cars for snow.
In you’re looking for a boat, don’t wait for summer. The best time to make that purchase is in January or February, when boat shows are taking place all over the country, said Ellen Hopkins, a spokeswoman for the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
At boat shows, you can do comparisons and board the vessels. And unlike most car shows, you can actually buy the boat at the show, and “prices are very competitive,” Ms. Hopkins said.
I don’t have any suggestions on buying a plane, but for those of us who buy plane tickets, I asked Bill McGee, travel consultant for Consumer Reports, for advice. Is it better to buy early to get a good price or to buy late, when airlines are trying to fill empty seats?
Mr. McGee said the general rule of thumb was to try to get tickets at least 21 days before traveling, if you can.
If you’re searching for a fare and it seems high, a lot of travel sites — Expedia, Travelocity and FareCompare, to name a few — offer e-mail alerts to let you know when fares go down.
Waiting until the last minute on the theory that airlines would rather fill the plane at a bargain rate than fly with empty seats doesn’t hold true anymore, he said, because planes are usually loaded these days.
“The average for a long time was about 60 percent capacity,” Mr. McGee said. “Then, it was true, you were more likely to get low rates late. Now airlines have gotten much more disciplined and the average is 80 percent. And if that’s the average, that means a lot of planes are flying at 100 percent capacity.” So not a lot of empty seats. Another tip: tickets can be cheaper on a Tuesday or Wednesday, because that’s when many airlines initiate fare sales. And even though there is a variety of travel sites available, they largely get all their information from one source.
Now, on to other big-ticket items. What about computers? Should you wait until those Black Friday bargains, aiming to get a huge discount?
Not really, says Dan Ackerman, senior editor at CNet.com, a Web site for technology news and reviews.
“We used to say that going into the holiday season is the time when you used to see the biggest discounts, but not anymore,” he said. “You might see deep discounts at the doorbuster sales, but then the store might only have five items and you have to be the first ones on line.”
Nor does it hold true anymore that you can get a computer cheaply if you buy an older model just when a new model is introduced. “Manufacturing efficiency has gotten so good, that they don’t have a huge stack of inventory sitting around,” Mr. Ackerman said.
Instead, wait for sales around Christmas, Presidents’ Day, back to school and graduation — which doesn’t leave a lot of time when computers aren’t on sale.
So the main message is: Don’t drive yourself crazy looking for great bargains on computers, game systems or tablets like the iPad.
“A few years ago, a budget laptop was $1,000. Now, $1,000 is high-end,” Mr. Ackerman said. “The margins are thin on these laptops.”
That is also true for televisions. Many go on sale around Super Bowl time, for obvious reasons, but again, he said, “When you have a 42-inch TV for $699, there’s not a lot of room to cut prices because there’s not a lot of profit.”
If you’re more interested in getting rid of old items than acquiring new ones, a colleague, Jennifer Saranow Schultz, wrote in a recent Bucks blog post that the best time to sell old household items online through eBay was in early fall, early in the week and at the beginning and end of the workday.
That also happens to be the best time to buy.
And here are a few random suggestions. Buy air-conditioners in winter. They’re not only cheaper, but installation can also be less expensive, said Greg Daugherty, executive editor of Consumer Reports. Linens and bedding still usually go on sale in January. Cookware is often a bargain in August, when students are going to college and setting up their dormitory rooms, Ms. Huffstetler said.
Champagne is usually less expensive in December, when stores receive lots of shipments and prices become competitive. And if you’re in the market for chocolate or candy (and who isn’t?), it seems to be on sale after nearly every holiday. Which means it’s a bargain year-round.
As far as Ping-Pong tables? I never did get a good answer about why they were cheaper now. Ms. Huffstetler hazarded a guess. “They may be more of a summer item when people are more active.”