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The Basics

5 ways to shop for a living

Stores mark down merchandise all the time just to get it off their shelves. Here's how to snap up those bargains and resell at a profit.

By Melinda Fulmer

Christine Coulombe can spot a deal a mile away.

When she finds a good one, she cleans out all the stores in her area, spending hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. But what her neighbors think is just an expensive personal obsession is actually a lucrative business.

Reselling those bargains earns Coulombe $40,000 to $50,000 a year from eBay auctions and resale shops, more than her gig as a part-time registered nurse.

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"I love to shop. But I don't buy just to buy," Coulombe says. "It has to be a killer deal."

Here are a few of her favorite recent purchases:

  • Coach leather goods and accessories. Coach goods are one of Coulombe's reselling mainstays. On a recent trip to a Coach store, she noticed some $9.99 leather dog accessories that had been marked down from $100. She bought a dozen of them and resold them on eBay for 50 to 60 bucks a pop. (Coach representatives frown on this practice, however. "People should only be buying for personal use," scolds Coach spokeswoman Andrea Shaw Resnick.)
  • Gap clothing. Coulombe bought 20 down coats from a Gap store that were originally marked from $159 to $189 before being slashed to $9.99. With a couple of coupons and an additional $10 discount, she scored the 20 coats for $100 total. She sold a few of them on eBay for $30 and $40 apiece, more than recouping her initial investment, and will sell the rest at the peak of the winter-wear season, when they could fetch higher prices.
  • Toys. When toys go on sale for 80% to 90% off after the holidays, or during slow retail periods, Coulombe buys them in bulk. Sometimes she can sell them to a children's resale shop on her way home from the mall for a 100% profit. "I'll try to profit within the hour," she says. "It's all in knowing what sells." Those $150 T.M.X Elmos? Yeah, Coulombe got in on that craze, too.

It doesn't have to be a lot of work, Coulombe says. She visits only about five stores to find most of her deals. But when she finds a good one, she moves quickly.

Though some people find deals by going directly to manufacturers, to government and self-storage auctions, to estate sales or even on trips to other countries, there are easier ways to score bargains, says Jim Griffith, eBay's official dean of education and a reseller himself.

"You can find (good) product to resell just about anywhere," he says -- even on eBay.

There are many venues where resellers hawk their finds, including Craigslist, consignment shops, swap meets and garage sales. Where they sell partly depends on the items and how big of a profit they're after. Because eBay charges an insertion fee of 20 cents to $4.80 and takes a sliding percentage of selling prices, sellers such as Coulombe try to peddle their goods for several times their purchase prices. Craigslist can typically fetch higher prices than selling through consignment shops or garage sales, they say, but you have to be ready for strangers to come knocking on your door.

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Griffith and Coulombe both report finding bargains on eBay from people who have mislabeled, misspelled or mismarketed certain items. Indeed, on one post on bargain site Fatwallet.com, a shopper found an iPod that the seller was marketing under the wrong generation or version, potentially costing him $100 in profit.

5 simple methods

Though most successful resellers would rather sell their souls than trade their shopping secrets, here are five simple ways that Coulombe and others say they score some of their bargains:

  • Rebate deals. Many tech items, such as software, printers, video cards, computer memory and modems, can be found free or greatly discounted after manufacturer and/or store rebates. In recent weeks, OfficeDepot.com customers could nab a Linksys cable modem for free after a $20 Linksys rebate and a $20 Office Depot rebate. By adding a $10 product to their online shopping cart and typing in a coupon code, they could also get free shipping and their choice of a slim compact-disc player, Bluetooth headset or retro minifridge thrown into the bargain.

That's not bad, but rebates can often take months to be paid out, and some you might not get back at all. Some manufacturers and rebate-fulfillment houses have a bad track record of paying rebates. Government watchdog agencies are trying to crack down in this area, but there is still some risk involved in buying and expecting to get money back later. For casual buyers, that may not be a huge problem, but for resellers there are often hundreds, if not thousands of dollars at stake.

  • Buy one, get one. You can find these deals, often referred to as BOGO, on cosmetics, toys, video games and clothing. Though many BOGO items have been marked up before the promotion or consist of things that have fallen out of favor, Coulombe says there are some gems to be found.

Continued: Watch the clearance racks

When buying clothes for her 'tween daughter one day at Limited 2, she spotted some nifty boots marked down to buy one, get two free. Originally priced around $50, they had been reduced to $9.99. A 20% off coupon brought the total down to around $8 for three pairs of boots. On her way home, Coulombe stopped at a resale shop and sold the three pairs of boots for $20 apiece, netting $52 for about 90 minutes' work. Knowing they would sell, she went back and bought out the store's entire stock of 30 pairs, which she plans to sell a few at a time through resale shops in her area.

Even if you don't plan on buying in bulk, you can split one of these purchases with a friend or sell one of the items to defray the costs of your purchase.

  • Clearance rack. Sometimes it's as easy as scouring your favorite store's clearance rack to find valuable discontinued products, off-season and returned merchandise, and store-display items that must be moved out to make way for new merchandise.

Case in point: Bargain hunters on one deal forum recently found a Bodum French-press bistro set with glasses, sugar and creamer containers, and stirrers that normally retails for $40 reduced to a mere $4 at their local Cost Plus World Market store. In the next few days, shoppers seeing these online posts had cleaned out the stock in Cost Plus stores around the country.

Off-season merchandise such as cashmere sweaters, winter coats or swimsuits can be particularly good deals if you are willing to buy and hold. "I'll buy a summer bag in September and wait until April or May to sell it," Coulombe says.

  • Sales and coupons. Don't hit a sale without doing your research first. Start with a store flier to check out prices. Then use shopping comparison sites, check out eBay and look on bargain forums for other deals on the same types of items. Super shoppers and moderators on MyBargainBuddy.com, Fatwallet.com, Ben's Bargains and Slickdeals.net often offer up coupon codes (some that can be stacked together on the same deal) to use in conjunction with these sales.

With many of these Web sites, you can subscribe to certain discussion threads or get notification when there's a new deal on that cell phone or camera that you're looking for. Some people get these messages sent to their cell phones so they can react more quickly, says Ben Chui, the operator of Ben's Bargains. "You have to be aware of when a price drops," Chui says. "It is not uncommon for electronics to drop 25% in price in one day."

If you are eyeing something special, Coulombe says, befriend your local store manager. He or she can tell you when a sale is coming, often a couple of weeks in advance (plenty of time to do that homework).

  • Consider a store card. One more tip on sales for the extremely disciplined: Some resellers suggest getting a store credit card for the places you hit most. You'll often get the best coupons sent to you, free shipping offers and other discounts the rest of us don't see, which can pay off at sale time. But this strategy is worth it only if you pay off these cards each month. Coulombe has been known to buy something with her store charge card to get the discount and then use a check to pay it off two minutes later in the store.

Moreover, know your stores' return policies. If a product goes on sale before you have a chance to wear it or use it, return it. Some children's-clothing stores such as Gymboree have a six-month return policy, making that purchase of the next size up less of a gamble.

Video on MSN Money: Donna Freedman finds deals

Donna Freedman on MSN Money
Treasure hunting in thrift stores
Follow Donna Freedman as she finds deals you won't believe.

One note of caution about all this bargain hunting: There's a fine line between finding a bargain and getting a truly good deal. You need to consider how much you adore an item, how much you'll use it and what its resale value is, should you decide to trade up.

Even back at the turn of the 20th century, businessman Franklin P. Jones knew the score when he said: "A bargain is something you can't use at a price you can't resist."

Updated Dec. 5, 2007