7 Seconds in Heaven with Mark Ellwood

Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke spend 7 Seconds in Heaven with Mark EllwoodToday's guest: Mark Ellwood Why we want to spend 7 Seconds in Heaven with him: Any man who not only wants to go shopping is our kind of guy!

His latest: Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World (October 17th)

The scoop: A spirited investigation into the world of bargain hunting and how shoppers and sellers try to one-up each other

When Coca-Cola offered the first retail coupon in the 1880s, customers were thrilled. But today, one in four American shoppers will buy something only if it’s on sale, and almost half of all merchandise carries a promotional price. The relentless pursuit of deals has totally disrupted the relationship between buyers and sellers.

In this playful, well-researched book, journalist Mark Ellwood investigates what happens to markets when everything’s negotiable. From the haggling bazaars of Istanbul to Black Friday at a mall in upstate New York to pinnacles of global luxury such as Hermès and Louis Vuitton, sellers and shoppers are engaged in a constant game of cat and mouse.

Price consultants use the latest findings in neuroeconomics to fool shoppers into thinking they’ve gotten a great deal. Consumers, on the other hand, are more empowered than ever by technology, from coupon apps to strategic Twitter analysis. And some brands resist the trend entirely, opting to set their unsold merch out to sea and shred it rather than slash prices.

Enlightening as it is entertaining, Bargain Fever offers invaluable insights into how shopping works today.

Our thoughts: Fascinating. Informative. Juicy.

Giveaway: Two copies!  Just leave a comment to be entered to win. We'll select the winners on Sunday, October 6th after 12 pm PST.

Where you can read more about Mark: His website and Twitter.


Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke talk to Mark Ellwood about why no one should ever pay full price for anything1. Liz & Lisa: How did you get into being a retail expert/why did you write this book? Not to sound sexist, but dare we point out that you are a man writing about shopping for an audience, we're assuming is made up of mostly women? :)

Mark Ellwood: I've always loved shopping - I'd take retail therapy over analysis any time. I'd rather haggle for a leather couch than sit on one.

I think it's all down to my childhood.  I grew up (very happily) as an only child, with a mother for whom shopping was a sport. Going to the shops was my family's answer to walk in the park: only far more fun, a lot less grubby and with a bigger chance of grabbing a great deal on a pair of jeans.

As I was dragged, solo, from store to store by my mom, I realized early on that I had a choice: hate shopping and in the process much of my childhood, or embrace it and start having fun. I opted for the latter.

What's more, my mom is from Scotland, a nation famous in Europe for its love of a bargain. I still tease her that when she puts two 5 pound notes in her wallet, she's secretly hoping they might breed, Giant Panda-style. Nothing makes her happier than a surprise price adjustment on a Sunday afternoon. I inherited that, too.

2. L& L: Tell us more about this concept of "buyagra" (we think we might have it!)

ME: Picture it. You're sitting in a restaurant, and you order a slice of chocolate cake. Delicious, sure, but no big deal. Imagine being in that same cafe and the delighted surprise you feel when the owner remembers it's your birthday; a free slab of molten lava cake appears, candle flickering merrily.

In the former case, your brain is happy. In the latter, it's ecstatic, and is surging with a special chemical called dopamine. This is a much misunderstood hormone, often assumed to be Dr Feelgood Juice. It isn't. It's better to think of dopamine as Bonus Juice; it essentially spritzes in your brain every time the situation's better than you expected.

The commonest time that happens? The sight of a 50% OFF sign, when the cute dress you were planning to buy is a better deal than you could have hoped. Some of us are more powerless under buyagra's thrall than others - one in four people, in fact. They are the shopaholics who have a harmless genetic variant that basically turbocharges buyagra's impact on their brains. It's biological for those women, who camp out overnight for Black Friday bargains.

3. L&L: What's the #1 mistake we make as shoppers?

ME: No one should ever, ever, ever pay full price for anything. Did I say *ever*? Whether it's Googling for a coupon code before checking out online, or simply asking a store clerk sweetly "Are there any discounts I should know about today?" the rule is simple. If it's not at least 10% off, my wallet stays shut and so should yours.

My latest obsession is PoachIt, a button that installs in your browser and you hit any time you're hovering on a product page - completely free, it will retrieve any coupon code or discount that exists anywhere online right now for that item.

4. L&L: What's the #1 shopping secret everyone should know?

ME: Until about 1980, prices were set using what was known as the cost-plus model - companies took what it cost to make, say, a wine glass and used a simple equation to work out the retail price. Say it cost a buck to make each glass, then final price would be 2.5 times that - $2.50.

Then everything changed when a wily German invented the idea of market-based pricing - basically, "What can we get away with charging for that?" Suddenly, it didn't matter that the glass cost a buck to make - it mattered how much it looked like it was worth. Let's make it $10, because it's got a designer label on it. How else did a classic Chanel flap-over bag cost $2,850 in 2008 then just two years later be marked $4,100 (a rise of 44%)?

That price inflation, which happens in every industry now, is the reason shelling when something isn't on sale is so redundant. The ability to discount is built-in to every price.

5. L&L: What's your feeling on buying clothes on eBay or from a second-hand store?

ME: Resellers are a wonderful resource: eco-friendly (less wastage on fast fashion that's worn twice and thrown into a landfill) and bargain-priced (that Vuitton bag on consignment will be less than half its cost brand new). The only challenge is that the boom in consigning has also birthed a boon for fakes, and the industry's infested with knockoffs.

Online, giveaways that something might be more Luis Vuttion than LV are blurbs that keep reiterating "100% authentic" - it's the shopping equivalent of a guy on a first date who's overemphatic about how he has no feelings for his ex (If it were true, you wouldn't need to keep on saying it). To be safe, buy from a reputable reseller with a reputation and guarantees - one of my favorites is Fashionphile.com. It's an Aladdin's Cave of cut-price designer purses.

6: L&L: Complete this sentence:When I'm not writing, producing or presenting, I'm _________.

ME: I'm shopping. Honestly. My favorite place for a bargain is the basement of the Strand bookstore on Broadway in downtown Manhattan, where review copies are illicitly offloaded at half price. The moment I come across my own book on those shelves will be a meta discount moment. And yes, I'll probably buy a couple of copies.

7. L&L: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?

ME: I speak fluent Italian, despite looking as British as Harry Potter. I spent chunks of my childhood in Tuscany, and I picked up the local lingo so I could play with the other kids on the beach. It's served me well, as I love Italy so much (the shopping's amazing, of course).

It's also delicious as most Italians assume anyone blonder than Sophia Loren won't understand a word they're saying, as their language isn't exactly spoken worldwide. I've eavesdropped on the most outrageous conversations in Venice or Rome, whether hotel clerks wondering out loud whether to upgrade my room (I waited til they finished, and then replied sweetly I'd love una camera con la veduta) to waiters complaining about other diners (never me, so far at least)

Thanks, Mark!