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Learning to find the best bargains in discount stores

It's a good feeling to pick up a fashion magazine and see a photo of a $400 coat you just bought for $315. That's the kind of bargain you can find in many discount stores.

It used to be that some of these ''discounters'' carried irregulars, damaged goods, or last year's fashions. Today, most carry first-quality garments - sometimes simultaneously with the department stores.

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How they're able to offer such great savings varies with their individual buying and selling techniques. The important thing is that up-to-the-minute fashions are available - and at good values.

Some of the stores are located close to department stores. Others are in low-rent districts, on the third and fourth floors of buildings, or on the outskirts of town. (Certain manufacturers will sell only to stores outside of the major shopping areas.)

You can build a beautiful wardrobe - at a price - if you shop these discount stores. Here's how:

First, visit department stores with the purpose of learning what's ''in.'' The more you familiarize yourself with the merchandise, the faster you'll recognize designer fashions and a good buy.

Study the labels. While some discounters leave them in, others cut them out. As you get better at the game, you'll be able to recognize whose garment it is by its style. Albert Nipon, for example, uses lots of tucks.

Don't be disappointed if you can't find something on your first trip. You have to frequent these places - at least once a month. Smart shoppers do their buying early in the season when there's a full selection. This is especially important for those who wear small sizes.

The best time of day for working people to shop is right after work or on nights the stores are open late. Lunchtime also works for some. But be careful of impulse buying during this limited hour. Those who aren't working often find early morning the best time.

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It's very important to know whether or not you can return garments. A few stores have a policy of no returns. If you're an insecure shopper, stay away from these stores. Or, try to develop a friendship with one of the salesclerks or the manager. Some discount stores are anxious to give you the same services as the department stores.

Find out about the payment policy, too. Some stores accept only cash or checks while others accept certain credit cards.

Read fashion magazines. Look for quality. Europeans have learned to buy one good thing rather than two not-so-good. They'll pay extra to get lined skirts or slacks, for example. They don't feel the need to wear something different every day, either.

Look over the fiber content. Natural fibers look better and they feel better. Synthetics are not as absorbent and don't breathe as well. This means they're warmer in summer and cooler in winter.

Buy items that only have a small percentage of synthetic fiber - just enough to give durability and keep the garment from wrinkling too much. Avoid the 100 percent polyesters.

If you have trouble finding sizes and aren't sure what size to buy in a certain outfit, ask for help. Don't worry too much about what size the ticket says, because manufacturers cut differently. The important thing is that the garment fits properly.

Trust the price tags. I've found that stores listing both the original and selling prices don't juggle the figures. Once in a while the original price may be a dollar or two more than the department store ticket.

I've also found that the stores that only list the selling price are on target, too. The item is often just about half of the price of the ones selling in department and specialty shops.

Finally, remember that nothing is a bargain unless it pleases you and works with your wardrobe.

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