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So you want to be a really smart shopper? Look stateside

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“Never buy anything unless it is on sale!” — that’s the first rule of an American shopper.

“Japan is an extremely expensive country. And Tokyo is especially expensive!” my friends told me when I was packing for my long stay here. Consulting firms ECA and Mercer agree with them, placing Tokyo among the world’s most expensive cities for expatriates: 11th and 7th places in 2014, respectively. However, there are always ways to save a bit of money.

One way to reduce the cost of living in Tokyo, and Japan overall, is to shop online for certain goods — mainly clothes and electronics — outside of the country. The strategies described below are most useful for those who travel to the U.S. once or twice a year and have friends or relatives living there. For a couple of the ideas, you will need a Social Security number, which most former U.S. residents should have.

While at first glance retail prices might appear comparable to those in Japan (see table), the U.S. offers more opportunities for saving money than any other country I have spent time in. Given the sheer frequency and scale of sales, and the steep discounts offered, it’s a rule of thumb of mine not to buy anything unless it is on sale. Not many Japanese stores, except those selling expiring food, offer discounts higher than 25-30 percent, but in the States this is considered a low discount — you know, like the one you might expect in-between sale periods. Christmas and summer sales may have discounts up to 70 percent, especially on fashion goods. Smart shopping can get you discounts of around 90 percent!

Here are some tips to follow if you want to be a really smart shopper:

Following sales is one of the most important requirements of smart shopping. In the U.S., sales usually coincide with big holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter — and special days, such as the 4th of July, Memorial Day and Presidents’ Day. Google “seasonal sales in the USA” for seasonal shopping guides.

Reward and points cards or programs can be great money-savers. These cards may often look like bank cards, but they cannot be used to pay. However, they either give additional discounts on every purchase (Barnes & Noble, Kinokuniya) or a cash voucher after you spend a certain amount of money (Eddie Bauer, Sports Authority, Best Buy). They can be used in online and offline purchases, you not require a credit check to apply, and in most cases there are no additional fees. I apply for all the free cards and save up to $500 a year just by using those.

Store or brand credit cards are another way to get bonuses for shopping. However, they require a decent credit history and your commitment. (Beware of late payments — fees can be very high!) Application also involves a credit check, and therefore it will affect your credit score. It is better to apply for these cards only once every six or seven months, but the benefits are usually worth it.

For example, Gap credit cards (Old Navy, Gap, Banana Republic) give additional discounts for all the umbrella brands, five points for every $1 spent in the company’s stores, one point per $1 for all other purchases and a $10 reward card is issued for every 200 points. Other companies have similar offers. The combined discount from a seasonal sale and a special offer for card members may top 90 percent of the original price. Reward cards can be used even after all the discounts, so some of the items may be completely free.

Credit cards with cashback and/or rewards bonuses can save up to 5 percent of your spending. The tricky part is to remember which card has the highest bonus for what type of purchase. The interest rates can also be quite high.

Email newsletters are a very good source of coupons, information about various sales, promotions — and clutter. The best way to deal with the latter is to have an email account dedicated to shopping that you only check before you go prowling for bargains.

Online and offline discount stores can be a good place to look for cheap stuff. However, shoes and clothing tend to be outdated. But in Japan no one will know that your shirt is from a 2-year-old collection! Be cautious of outlet stores: Instead of clearance or last-year items, they often sell goods manufactured specifically for the outlets, so the quality can be lower than for the regular stock. Some online bargain stores offer free or cheap shipping directly to Japan, but check the prices in both dollars and yen — sometimes there is a difference.

If you can visit a brick-and-mortar store in the U.S., price-checking applications for smartphones, receipt surveys and price-adjustment policies are three other money-saving tricks to have up your sleeve. When it comes to any policies, be sure to check whether they apply for online retailers as well. For example, I have learned recently that Amazon U.S. (fabulesslyfrugal.com/how-to-get-an-amazon-price-adjustment) offers price-adjustment within seven days of purchase — a nice surprise. (Retailers with price-adjustment policies will refund you the difference if you buy a product at full price and then that product goes on sale for less shortly afterward.)

If your American family or friends are willing to help, order everything from online stores to their address shortly before your arrival. Then you can check all the purchases quickly and return the ones you do not like. Returns in the U.S. are very easy.

If a trip to America is not possible, your friends can send your purchases to Japan. The cost of shipping all the items in one or two packages is usually lower than shipping them directly from a U.S. store or buying from a Japanese online or offline retailer. However, nowadays the only way to send personal items from America to Japan is by airmail. It is fast, but not very cheap: The U.S. Postal Service charges $135 to send a 10-kg (22-pound) parcel from San Francisco to Tokyo, for example.

If shopping overseas is not an option at all, some of the tips above still can be useful in Japan. Stores here have seasonal sales, of course, and there are various point/reward cards and coupons. Maybe it will be hard to get a 90 percent discount, especially if you are not fluent in Japanese, but 10-20 percent is still better than nothing! Please share your advice on smart shopping in Japan.

Your comments and questions: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    Rather odd graphic to use as a header for the article given that Japanese prices are lowest in two of the four categories and miss being lowest in a third category by less than fifty cents.

    • Siloo Kapadia

      Exactly! Just more of that “USA is better” nonsense. We lived there for 20 years and were never happier to leave!

  • GBR48

    The graphic indicates branded goods. If you want to save money, just buy generic. You can buy a perfectly serviceable pair of jeans in the UK for five quid ($8).

    If you’re that desperate to (a) buy branded goods and (b) save every last penny, then you are a superficial and tight-fisted person. Saving money is the least of your problems.

    • Siloo Kapadia

      Yes. And if that is the case you can buy at discount shops in Tokyo like Uniqlo and save big. No need to buy in USA. Most of all USA goods are not that good anyway – mostly Made in China rubbish.

  • Siloo Kapadia

    We lived in USA for 20 years before escaping to Singapore. We go often to Japan for vacation and shopping. Prices in USA for similar quality goods are no less than Japan and in many instances higher. The prices for many goods in USA that are lower are often of lower quality and need replacing more often. In general we have found that this is the case. So shopping in USA is not always the answer. This of course does not take into consideration that in the case of clothes the cuts in Japan are far better. So unless one is unable to find his/her size in Japan I say you are better off shopping in Japan.