I am frequently asked by acquaintances heading to the United Stated of America, “What are the best places to shop?” Which stores should they go to, which stores have the best prices, where should they purchase electronics, should they shop online while in the US? Is everything really as cheap as people say it is? Since, at the moment of writing this article, I have been to America nearly 10 times, and have gone shopping with relatives who are permanent residents there, here is my advice and recommendations on how to shop in the US with maximum efficiency. If you think of any additional tips or advice to share while reading, feel free to write them in the comment section below!
First, I want to make sure this is clear: even though I am interested in fashion, I don’t consider only the latest collections from the most expensive stores to be wearable. I approach shopping for clothes from a very practical standpoint. The clothing has to be of good quality, look good, fit well, and sport a reasonable price tag. The brand is not particularly important, but brand names will be mentioned in this article for purposes of comparison between stores. After you see the American prices for clothing from popular brands, part of the luxury and exclusivity associated with them will definitely disappear. Some brands that are made out to be very pricey in Europe will cost you very little in the US. Shopping here can really be as cheap as it is rumored to be, and a possible side effect of having experienced it is that, upon returning to Europe, everything will seem insanely expensive. At least, that is what happened to me. After having shopped in the US, I always convert European store prices to dollars and am frequently horrified at them. It’s also not a bad idea to bring an empty suitcase along to the US, or even travel without one, and instead buy one upon arrival. Another handy tip is to bring some scales with you for weighing the suitcase in order to be spared the unpleasant surprise of having to leave some of your purchases behind if the suitcase is too heavy to be allowed on the plane. While flying, wear the heaviest clothing out of that which you bring along. In case of disagreements with the airport staff, ask to display the weight in kilograms, not pounds, since 50 pounds are the equivalent of 22.7 kg, leaving 300 grams free. 3 pounds too much is equivalent to just over a kilogram that you have to remove, but if the suitcase is too heavy, that makes it easier to judge about how much you have to remove. Some might consider all of this to be redundant, but I have yet to pay extra for bringing a suitcase that is too heavy, since I always carefully plan what to store in the suitcase, and what I could just stuff the pockets of my jacket with.
Before you start wondering about which stores to visit, it is important to understand that the US is not exactly the land of pedestrians and public transport. It is much, much easier to go shopping when you have your own rental car, or in the worst case scenario, use the metro. You could find yourself in a situation where the best shopping mall around is a mere 20 km away, but if you take the taxi there, you’ll have to pay a rather ridiculous price just for getting there. Something you will frequently encounter is that stores in a shopping mall will not always be in one building, and will often be separated into blocks, or even be located in their own separate buildings. Often, it will be easier to drive from one end of the shopping mall to the other rather than dragging all of your shopping bags there and back. Both gas and car rental are cheap (there is a separate article just about that – how to rent a car in the US), and renting a vehicle allows you to shop at the stores that the locals use instead of relying on overpriced tourist stores near hotels. You should also familiarize yourself with a size chart of clothing, since Americans use a completely different system for both clothes and shoes. You can find one here. I don’t shy away from bringing a measuring tape with me to American stores in order to be able to buy clothes for friends and relatives back home. I also print out pictures of clothing that fits them with the measurements written down.
The numbers written on price tags are before tax, so depending on the state, expect to pay between 5-7% more than what you see on the price tag. You can see an exact chart of sales tax by state here.
Typical Clothing Stores and Shopping Malls
I will not go into too much detail about these since I have shopped at them only a handful of times, and this type of shopping is not very practical. Feel free to ask at your hotel about where the nearest shopping mall is located, and they will surely be able to give you directions. An interesting trait about shopping malls is that they usually do not have grocery stores, but do house a wide array of cafes and fast food restaurants. There is also quite often a cinema in them. In a typical shopping mall, you’re likely to find stores such as Forever 21, Sephora, and Banana Republic, as well as multi-brand stores such as Macy’s. In them, you’ll find clothing for men, women and children, as well as various accessories. While the prices are still cheaper than in Europe, this is definitely not the best method of shopping, as it takes the most time and you might end up not buying anything at all.
I would only shop at these stores under the following conditions:
- If I don’t have a car available, I’m in the very center of a city, I don’t have time and have to buy something now (for example, my luggage has been delayed and I need an evening gown to attend a formal dinner)
- If it’s right after New Year’s, when there are sales all around
- If I need something that has just appeared on the market – an item from the newest collection of a particular brand, specific perfume, etc.
- If I need to buy something of an exact size (these stores frequently have a tall section, aside from the usual plus size and petite)
- If the store is about to close down and there are sales of 70-90%
- If I am unsure as to what I even want/need at the moment, for example, which perfume am I going to like or which cream I will want to use. At Sephora, you can ask for a sample of nearly every product.
These stores are where middle class Americans usually shop at, while immigrants frequent cheaper ones. For those who scorn these types of stores, there are the expensive, single-brand stores, usually located in their own separate buildings on the main street of the city.
Example prices (tax not included)
- A non-widely known designer dress,$150
- Maidenform female underwear, $12
- Calvin Klein men’s shirt, $75
- The store is usually easily accessible (located in the city centre or a few metro stations away)
- They sell the latest clothing on the market
- Friendly employees
- You can use coupons (employees will frequently offer to get some for you if you haven’t brought your own, or might even immediately give you a discount)
- Shopping malls also typically have electronics stores
- More expensive than other alternatives for shopping (some items and even entire categories of items can be purchased for a fraction of the price elsewhere)
- There are only a handful of brands available per store, and the shopping mall might not have anything from the brand you are looking for.
General Goods Stores
Chains of stores like Sears, Walmart etc. offer a wide variety of clothing. I typically shop at Walmart for food to bring along on the road trip, but they also offer clothes in a very wide range of sizes. Stores like these are where you can buy t-shirts for as cheap as $5, but you often get what you pay for, quality wise. Still, it is not worse than the clothing available in stores like Cubus, Zara and Reserve. Here you can find anything from dog-shaped purses intended for little girls to H-cup bras. Many Walmarts are also open during the night. I definitely recommend that everyone visit one of these huge American grocery stores at least once. Shopping for food will be much cheaper this way, and everyone should see what a truly supersize store looks like, where milk is really sold by the gallon, there are three dozen eggs per package, and a 12-pack of Coca Cola cans costs less than a 2.5l bottle in Riga. Seeing how these types of stores are hardly anyone’s main destination for shopping in America, I shall not elaborate on them more.
I still remember how on my first trip to the US, in the state of New Jersey, I was in a car with my colleagues and we were sitting trough a massive traffic jam, on our way to an outlet type store – Woodbury Common– which has more than a thousand reviews on Tripadvisor. Back then, my Canadian colleagues recommended this outlet centre as the best place to shop in the entire state of New York. There were many stores selling purses, perfume and clothing. Back then, I wasn’t really sure – were these really the cheapest prices that you could find? Truth be told, they were indeed cheaper than what I had seen in the shopping center right next to my hotel, which would be classified under the previous category. But one shopping trip with my aunt in the US changed all of my perceptions about where to shop in this country. Even though I’ve still occasionally shopped at outlet centers (such as Premium Outlets) since then, I would only recommend them if you’re looking for a particular item from a brand. For example – a specific size, waterproof, hooded jacket from Columbia, a pair of size 34 Levi’s women’s jeans or Clinique Moisture Surge cream. Some outlets might have items from the latest collections, but I wouldn’t count on it. Since the cheapest stores (the category below) might have quite a limited range of shoes to choose from, I recommend visiting the Designer Shoe Warehouse. There are also stores such as Payless, but the quality of the goods is far from exceptional.
America is the nation of discount coupons, and there are countless articles and even television programs about how to use them with utmost efficiency. Outlets sell coupons for a small fee (under $5), but you can print some out, for free, from the store’s website, or ask for a booklet of them at your hotel. It’s easy to spend all day in these centers, so it is recommended to have a look at a map of stores in advance, mark the ones you are interested in, and have a shopping list of desired items ready, before heading there. You’ll often see banners advertising “Factory stores” and/or “Factory outlets.” I can say from experience that the prices in these are exactly the same as in regular outlets, and occasionally even more expensive.
Example prices (tax not included)
- Fossil sunglasses, $5 – $200 (the latter had a 50% discount)
- Armani dress, $600
- Banana Republic jackets, ~$60
- Calvin Klein men’s shirts ~$60
- Nike women’s sports shoes, $35
- Lower prices than at Macy’s or general goods stores
- The option to use discount coupons
- More or less friendly employees who will help you find what you’re looking for, and might suggest which coupon to use
- If you don’t know which size you need, you will be measured and told what your size is (it is worth it to write these measurements down somewhere, as they can be handy at the stores in the next category)
- A wider range of choices than at the stores in the next category, both size-wise and brand-wise. If a blouse doesn’t fit, there will be a bigger or smaller one on the spot.
- Not the cheapest way to shop in the US
- Not as much variety as in the original brand store. For example, a Victoria’s Secret outlet might have some skin-tone, cotton G-strings. They’ll be cheap, but only available in one color. They will still have swimsuits, panties and other products, but they won’t have all of the products seen on the website.
- While there are lots of outlets, there are still less of them than the next described category
- In big cities (Orlando, NYC), most of the customers in these stores are tourists, which is rather telling of the intended market and the price markup.
Last Year’s Collections & Collection Leftovers Stores
Stores selling leftovers from other brands’ collections have recently been appearing on the European market, too. Arguably the most famous chain of these is TK Maxx, seen in Britain and Poland. In the US, their title is slightly different – TJ Maxx– but this is not the only such store worth noting. The same company also owns Marshalls, which specializes in selling cheaper brands. Out of these types of store chains, I most frequently shop at Ross Dress for Less, which is also the parent company of dd’s Discounts. Some might say that the best of these stores is Burlington Coat Factory, but that depends on what you are looking to buy. Middle-class citizens normally don’t shop at these stores, perhaps considering them to be below their living standard, but in reality they often sell the exact same items that are sold for much more in more “prestigious” stores. I’ve even found stuff from current collections in these “leftover stores”. I saw a dress in the “New Arrivals” section at Macy’s, with a price tag of $89.99, that I had already bought at Ross, during my previous trip to the US, and for just $39.99!
I would like to reiterate that the prices found in these stores do not mean that the items are bad! You can find clothing of genuinely good quality here. These aren’t second-hand or botched products, or fashion statements from the past century. There are occasionally ripped and mislabeled products, but in Europe you’ll not only see them, but frequently end up purchasing them by mistake. A friend of mine, who used to work at a clothing store at home, told me that all the biggest sales usually sell damaged clothes.
Since I normally shop together with my husband, I need not only women’s clothes, but also men’s, and also some clothing for friends and relatives back home (kids of friends, my grandma, etc.), I shop at Ross. In my opinion, this store offers the biggest variety for all the different types of clothing that I wish to buy, and here I can find what I need the fastest, seeing how the clothes are already sorted by size. Meanwhile, in the other stores I mentioned, only some of the sections are sorted. Other than that, the stores all function pretty much exactly the same way, with the only differences being the number of available brands and the amount of items from each.
At Ross, clothing is also sorted by plus size, petite and junior. Unfortunately there is no specific section for tall people. I pick an aisle to start looking in (e.g. dresses), locate where the necessary sized items are, and start “browsing” the coat hangers. I always take the biggest shopping cart and pile up everything that is of interest to me, even if customers are only allowed to bring 7 items with them into the changing rooms (said items will be carefully counted by an employee upon you entering and exiting the changing room). Right next to the changing rooms there’s a “parking lot” of sorts, intended for shopping carts, where everyone else also leaves shopping carts with piles of items. When visiting one of these stores, expect clothing to be lying on the floor, and don’t expect an employee to knock and ask whether clothing fits and should they bring a different size. The only things available are what you can see – if you want a different size for something (or more of the same item), you’ll have to find another store. There are no guarantees that the item will be there, though, since they cannot check it electronically, and nobody will call to ask. This is why, when going to Ross, I check their Store Locator on their website in advance to find 3-4 locations near the one I plan to visit initially. When typing the address into the navigation, check if the address you found online matches the recommended address that should pop up. Shopping malls often have a single address displayed online, while consisting of several buildings in reality, which can result in some time spent running around, trying to find the location of the specific store you are looking for. It is also important to check the hours at which the store is open, as Ross stores are usually open for a longer time on Fridays and Saturdays, but not always.
Aside from clothing, all collection-leftover stores also sell shoes, perfume, kitchen accessories (anything from kettles and spatulas to spices, teas, etc.), general household items (blankets, towels), toys and children’s clothing, accessories for electronics (phone cases, chargers, earphones), suitcases, body care products (creams, shampoos, wet wipes), jewelry and wrist watches. These types of stores are excellent for purchasing practical Christmas gifts for friends and relatives. We’ve all received that one gift that was originally meant for someone else, who then didn’t want it and in turn gave it to us. Shopping at collection-leftover stores is a way to eliminate that problem forever. I’ve regretted not buying something at Ross many times when starting to do Christmas shopping back at home. Every little tidbit can cost five times its American price here.
When going to this store, definitely bring a shopping list and set a time and financial limit for yourself, because the store is big and full of great deals, so it’s easy to lose all track of time, while looking at all the fancy notebooks and trying on the 50th Ralph Lauren dress, which is definitely going to fit this time. Pay attention to the clearance section. If an item is in the store for long enough and still has not been purchased, it’ll be marked down.
Example prices (tax not included) :
- Sketcher’s men’s shoes, $34
- Calvin Klein dresses, $29.99-$59.99
- DKNY women’s underwear, $1.99
- Calvin Klein bra, $7.99
- Guess handbags, $80-$150(I purchased a handbag for $80, and saw that exact handbag sold in regular a store half a year later for $500) Leather handbags from other designers (e.g. Betsey Johnson, Michael Kors etc.) are also available.
- Unisa women’s sandals, $10.99
- Samsonite large suitcase, $89.99
- Boss cologne, $16.99-$39.99 (the boxes are sealed and there are no samples, so you’ll either have to purchase already familiar scents, or go with a gut instinct)
- Calvin Klein men’s shirt, $21.99, other brands available for even cheaper – $7.99-$19.99
- Tommy Hilfiger men’s belt, $20
- Van Heusen tie, $14.99
- Set of 4 cotton hats for kids, $3.99
- Nike men’s sports tee, $14.99
- Everything is EXTREMELY cheap. The cheapest you’ll find.
- Clothing and shoes from quality, non-knockoff brands
- Clothing is already sorted by size
- Everything can be returned, even at a different location or even a different state, as long as it’s in the same chain of stores. Be sure to not remove the price tag and keep your receipt, otherwise they won’t accept the return.
- There are a lot of locations, you can find them in every state and in almost every living area, so if you don’t like the items in one location, you can just find another.
- Items are often placed in the wrong size section and occasionally even mislabeled.
- Clothing is often found laying on the floor and you have to spend time “digging” into piles of items to find what you need
- You can only bring 7 items at a time into the changing rooms
- It is often difficult to fully remove the label from items, as they are glued on very well
- The employees will often be unfriendly and won’t assist you in any way – their only task is to count the items for the changing rooms, stack items onto shelves and handle the cash register
- You need to carefully check yourself whether the items are damaged or are missing a component (a dress could normally include a belt, but it could be missing in one of these stores. If you manage to find the same item again, you can replace the component)
- If you don’t immediately buy something, an hour later it might not be there anymore
- The items you’ll find will depend on store location (A high-end Miami district store had a wide range of products from well-known brands to choose from, while the store other side of Miami barely had anything)
- You can get carried away, spend hundreds of dollars, and barely be able to carry it all to the car, not to mention stuffing it into suitcases later and possibly having to pay for overweight luggage J
Another question that I get asked quite frequently is about purchasing a wedding dress in the USA. Purchasing a wedding dress is a bit trickier than purchasing any other type of clothing. First of all, you need to set up an appointment with a bridal salon. If you show up without scheduling an appointment first, in 99% of cases the salon will either be closed, or all the consultants will be busy and you will be asked to wait or come back after setting up an appointment.
There are many options to choose from, for all shapes and sizes of people, as well as every budget. You can visit a more basic salon like David’s Bridal (they also have collections from famous designers, e.g. Vera Wang, for cheaper than usual), or sign up for a particular designer’s salon, or even visit a sample sale salon. Every state and city has its own selection of these. For wedding dresses, the most common type of salons offer the works of one designer; therefore, when looking up bridal salons, read about them on local forums. That way you can judge both the available options (various sizes, price range) and the quality of service. The samples you’ll see in simpler stores will often be quite worn and dirty. Keep in mind that you’ll almost never be able to simply purchase a dress on the spot. After you choose a model, you will be measured and they will order the dress. It can take up to 6 weeks for your order to arrive, so make sure to find out the specifics at your location of choice. Some salons will ship to Europe, but then you’ll have to deal with taxes and customs. Your dress will probably have to be re-sewn and adjusted once you actually receive it. Sample sale salons and stores with a large warehouse sometimes offer to buy dresses on the spot.
The US has a lot of options for purchasing various vitamins and dietary supplements. You can purchase them in pharmacies (such as CVS and Walgreens, where you can buy not only vitamins and medicine, but also flowers, food, beauty products and various bits and bobs), general goods stores (e.g. Walmart), and even specialized stores such as Vitamin Shoppe and GNC. The stores employ knowledgeable consultants, who will assist you in rapidly finding what you need, as well as be able to tell you about the contents of the vitamins/supplements. Of course, the packages are American-sized – often around 200 capsules. The specialized stores offer better quality vitamins than general goods stores and pharmacies. If you ever need to purchase medicine, you’ll likely not have any issues with acquiring non-prescription drugs, but some of them (such as anti-allergy drugs), that contain controlled substances, you may even need a US citizen passport for. They did not recognize my European passport as a document and refused to sell the medicine.
If you’re not looking for anything too specific and just need any sort of toy, Ross, Marshalls and other such stores have some to choose from. If you need a particular item, a specific doll, a construction toy, or just want the packaging to be nice and tidy, heading to Toys’R’US (or the toddler section Babies’R’Us,which is often found in the same building) is a very good option. I wouldn’t bother with picking out impressive packages, though, since after a flight in the suitcase they will rarely look as nice as they did in the store. These stores can be found in both multi-floor buildings in the heart of the city, and in giant shopping malls outside it.
If you wish to buy beads, a glue-gun, or a sewing kit, Michael’s is the store that you need to look for. The US is a good country for hobbyists, since supplies are widely available and cheap. Hobby stores are usually found in shopping malls (which in the US are typically separated into several buildings).
I’ve shopped for both clothing and shoes online, but since the time I discovered Ross, online shopping is something I do much less of. I used to really like Victoria’s Secret, and not just for buying underwear. I also really liked their regular clothing (especially overcoats!), but tastes change, and now I can buy higher quality clothing and underwear for cheaper when buying directly from the store. I used to order Victoria’s Secret to Riga, but shipping and customs were very expensive. I also really managed to mess up with my choice of colors and sizes several times.
Still, every now and then I do order clothing and shoes in advance, especially if I want a second pair of something I already own (this way I purchased a second pair of one of my favorite pairs of shoes, from Ecco, via Amazon for just $20, when I had originally paid $140 for them back home). It is possible to order your items straight to a hotel before a trip. I usually call the hotel beforehand and find out what their rules on the matter are. Some hotels start to charge a storage fee if you have more than 3 packages sent there, and some hotels only accept mail right before your arrival. I always try to order items so that they arrive a few days before I do so I don’t have to worry about the package reaching the hotel in time if I plan to stay at that location for only a short amount of time.
You can often return an item if it doesn’t fit you, however it is rather sub-optimal if you have to pay for the shipping again. On the Victoria’s Secret online store, you can use coupons to get free shipping, as well as free gifts for buying specific products, or a discount with orders over a certain price threshold. You can find coupon codes online (and should test to see which ones still work) while shopping. Shopping online does have a great advantage to it: if the particular store doesn’t have a warehouse in the state you’re shipping the item to, then you don’t have to pay sales tax. It’s not much, but still nice. I always order my favorite perfumes, make-up, electronics (especially photography equipment), and certain toothpaste brands online in advance. If acquaintances ask me to bring something in particular back for them, I usually ask them to order it online themselves and use my hotel as the delivery location. Doing so saves me time that I would otherwise have to spend running around stores and looking for the requested items. Instead, the exact desired thing is shipped to the hotel, and I don’t have to loan people money or take theirs with me. If you don’t wish to use online stores, you can also buy electronics at Best Buy, which seems to be the largest retailer of everything electronic. A newly released item should still be ordered online, as Best Buy might just not have it, or it might be sold out.
If you shop online with the intention of shipping the items back to Europe, something to consider is using a middleman service (such as Shipito) since there are stores that do not ship to Europe, do not accept European credit cards, or charge a very high shipping fee. A middleman service can also pack several shipments into one, remove labels, and otherwise save you some money.
Importing the Purchases Back to the Country of Origin
The first thing I do after I decide that I want to keep the clothing that I have purchased is removing labels. All price tags, boxes, labels and instructions are thrown into the trash. I never save the original packaging unless they are for symbolic, cheap items.
Tax Free Stores
I’ve only shopped in American Tax-free stores a handful of times. Usually the store is located in around the same area as the check-in booths. Your purchases will typically be delivered straight to the airplane, or to your gate. My personal record for time spent on doldrums in the tax-free zone is five hours, and I speak from experience when I say that these stores don’t really have the best variety, and you can find the same items for cheaper outside of the airport. To sum it up – I don’t shop at tax free stores.
Cash or Card?
I normally use a credit card to shop in the US because ,when withdrawing cash from an ATM, you have to pay two commissions/fees: one for the bank and one for the ATM, and it usually adds up to around $2-$3. In addition to avoiding fees, another advantage to using a credit card is not having to carry around pile of coins (you do still need some, in order to be able to pay road and bridge tolls, since not every place accepts automatic passes). Since anyone can set up a private ATM in the US, don’t be surprised when, after you withdraw cash from one, you may get a call from your bank asking what kind of suspicious transactions are being made; it happens. During the past year I have not experienced any issues like that anymore. Even Maestro-type cards are accepted in a lot more places (a few years ago almost nobody would accept them), but just to be safe, I always bring several cards with me, out of which 1-2 are credit cards, such as Visa (not Visa Electron) or MasterCard. When paying with a credit card and returning an item, you will usually be offered to have the money transferred right back to your card, however part of the money there will be lost during currency conversion, and it is not always possible to begin with – when it comes to using European credit cards, 50% of the time the transaction will not be able to be completed. If I still plan to shop at that store, I usually ask to get a gift card for that amount.
When paying with cash, I have noticed that $100 dollar bills aren’t accepted everywhere (whenever attempting to use one, they always mark them with a felt-tip pen and sometimes even call security). When I asked my relatives who live here, about why that is the case, they said that Americans rarely carry around more than $20 cash, and $100 dollars bills are suspicious, as well as the most common choice for counterfeiting.
- Go there with an empty suitcase, or without one (buy one upon arrival)
- Rent a car for transport, instead of using public transport or taxi (with the exception of big cities, where shopping centers can often be reached via metro)
- Write carefully planned shopping lists beforehand
- Write a list of stores to shop at, if all desired destinations are already known
- Have a look at maps of outlets – at the very latest while you are at your hotel, and get some coupons.
- Use a navigator and search both by address and store name
- Set a time and financial limit for every shopping session
- Decide whether you truly need every item that you purchase
- Bring some scales and a measuring tape with you.