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Houston - How to shop

It might well be called the "Art of shopping" as it requires skill and 'almost' a training course to find your way around Houston shopping malls, and then to actually choose between the massive range of goods on offer!

Houston is a consumers' paradise and you may find ANYTHING you are looking for, although it might take some finding. To disentangle you from the initial overwhelming situation, here is a quick reference guide to shopping in Houston.

Sales / special offers / promotions
There are special sales during holiday periods, with larger discounts than usual on offer. Sometimes it's worth waiting to buy more expensive items thus taking advantage of bigger savings. Otherwise, all stores offer weekly, monthly, seasonal or annual sales of their own. Weekly savings are normally posted by mail or itemized in leaflets available on entry to the store. Newspapers detailing special promotion items are available freely; however, these are known to attract you towards the purchase of unplanned items!   

Tax free days
Before school starts, in early August, there will be one or two "tax free days". When purchasing school supplies, clothing and shoes, there will not be any tax added onto your bill.

Bargaining is not common in stores.  You may however ask the store assistant if they happen to have any specials going on and if they have a voucher that they can give you. It is amazing what they keep behind their counters and don't tell you about unless you ask.  Shop assistants often have a commision based salary, which can explain this. But they will not refuse you the discount but still give it to you with a smile.
You can try bargaining or request discount if you are buying from individual sellers.

'Shopping around'
Americans are used to "shopping around"; that is, they compare before they buy. Before you go shopping, it is useful to review the advertizement in the newspapers such as the Houston Chronical. Sunday papers have the best source of offers as the majority of sales or promotions begin on a Sunday and continue for one week, except supermarket sales which start on Wednesday and continue until the end ot the week!

Payment methods
Most stores accept credit cards and personal checks with picture ID essential. When these are not acceptable a message is posted at the register explaining for example "NO checks (cheques) accepted". Many establishments do not accept the American Express card due to a higher bank rate being charged. Be careful when handling your credit card receipts, ensure that the card number is NOT printed on the receipt. This is to protect from other people using your number and making purchases from mail order companies or charging a service to you. For further information on credit card fraud, refer to the section IDENTITY THEFT , in the MONEY category. 

Discount using in-store cards
Most of the stores have their own 'discount cards' for which you can apply by providing photo identification and an address and phone number. This gives you 'special discounts' or 'shoppers points' . In some stores - especially supermarkets - it is becoming essential to have a card in order to enjoy the weekly discounts on promotional items.  

Return policy
After your purchase, returns or exchange items must be within a certain time limit, ask in the store if in doubt. The exception to this rule is if it's been marked 'final sales price', when you usually are not able to change the item. Always save your sales receipt. Most stores will return or credit your money; depending on how you paid originally. If you lose your receipt or your item for return is out of the time frame, most stores offer "store credit" - meaning, you can choose something else in the store for your return item at the "current sales price", but you will not get your money back.  

When you do return items (not including food and the normally prohibited items such as lingerie, swimwear etc), approach the customer service department. Nevertheless, the ease of exchange policy results in many people changing goods, which results in large queues, especially after holiday shopping. Depending on where you are shopping and the season, you may find very harrassed, busy and sometimes inexperienced customer service people who due to these circumstances, may find smiling or the 'Customer-service-orientation' with which you maybe familiar within Houston, maybe somewhat lacking! Allow plenty of time for exchanging goods!.

Many stores will ship an item anywhere in the U.S. for a small fee. Some stores do not add taxes to the item providing the merchandise-receiving State/City does not have the same store in that area. This way, you may save as well as consider this method a way of reducing your luggage when travelling.

For ease of shopping
With such a huge range of shops of the same branch, to locate a store near you, use the telephone book and call to find the location.

Holding item
If you need time to make or choose purchases, most of the stores will do at least a one-day 'hold' for you with your name and phone number provided. However, the item(s) will be put back to the shelf, should you not make the pick up prior to the agreed time. 

There are coupons that you can cut out of newspapers or advertizements that come with through the mail, or with the local newspapers.
Coupons allow a discount on specific items. You can also often use them for an additional discount on top of a lower or promotional price. Sometimes a store has "double" and "triple" coupons, which means you get two or three times the value of the coupon as a discount. There are store coupons that can only be used at the same store. Also, there are manufacture coupons; you can use them in any store, normally they have a longer expiry date than the store coupons.

Comparing prices on the same or similar products
To compare two products - such as two cans of soup - compare the "unit price" on the shelf just below the item number/name. You then avoid having to calculate different quantities with different prices. In general the store's own product often costs less and may be just as good as better known labels that are sold; so, look for the store's own label for ease of saving. It is said that the items placed on the higher and the bottom shelves are generally less expensive, since merchandizing practises aim at eye-level.

Shopping online - This has become more and more common as the price for online merchandise could be considerably cheaper and delivery fee could be waived in many cases. Watch out for fraudaulent sites and make first an evaluation on site of the product you are interested in and verify the cost in the shops to be able to evaluate your savings and decide if it is worth the wait (delivery within the US caould be for a premium contained to one day). Best way to reduce the risk for credit cards frauds is to use one with a low fixed amount specifically for online purchases.


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