Super Shoppers: Fashion

We asked Canada's most smartest consumers how they get great deals - and how you can too.

Enchanted Aisles

My style-wise son Luca, 8, has picked up on an easy way to look fashionable without breaking his piggy bank. Last month, during our back to-school shopping expedition, he even offered me a few pointers on getting value for your money.

I had given him a budget of $120 to spend on any clothing he needed for the new school year. His heart was set on a $70 pair of Air1 basketball shoes. (The red and white ones ? not the blue!) I tried to discourage him, pointing out that the footgear would eat up more than half our budget. But Luca had it all figured out. As he explained, we could buy the basketball shoes because they look good with everything. Then we could go to a few of our favorite discount stores to pick up jeans and shirts at cut-rate prices.

Luca had somehow worked out the secret of every smart fashionista ? he had discovered the power of positioning a few expensive fashion items against a background of more affordable ones to create a luxe impression at discount prices.

Celebrities do it all the time. Gwyneth Paltrow has no problem wearing a $10,000 designer evening dress to the Oscars last year while at the same time slipping her feet into a modestly priced pair of evening sandals from Birkenstock that cost about $120.

Closer to home, super shoppers like Chantel Guertin, assistant beauty editor at Elle Canada, are also big fans of mixing high and low. Guertin, for instance, loves the cheap jeans at Old Navy, the bargain arm of the Gap fashion empire. At $29, the jeans are a steal. In fact, when Guertin finds a pair she likes, she’ll buy three at a time. “I try to stay away from chains because then you find a lot of people wearing the same thing,” she notes. “But jeans are a basic, so they’re not worth splurging on.”

When it comes to business casual wear, Guertin moves up a notch to Banana Republic, yet another part of the Gap empire. The chain rules, she says, when it comes to basic tops and sweaters in black and natural shades. “You can get a nice black top with a bit of fancy detail on it for about $60,” she says. “It complements a lot of clothes in your wardrobe and you can wear those tops with almost anything.”

Of course, knowing where to shop is only half of the smart shopper’s formula ? knowing when to shop is the other half. John Williams, who spent a decade as a senior merchandise executive for Eaton’s stores across Canada before becoming one of Canada’s leading retail consultants, says big rewards accrue to shoppers who are prepared to wait for three to six months. Lingerie typically goes on sale in January, swimwear in July and sheets and pillow cases in August. These patterns usually repeat from year to year. “Figure out what the pattern is then discipline yourself,” advises Williams. “There are times of the year when stores are desperate to clear out merchandise. So if you’re happy with that store’s products, buy them then.” Simply organizing your buying to take advantage of those seasonal patterns can easily cut 25% or more off your clothes budget.

Deirdre McMurdry, the elegantly attired host of Global TV’s MoneyWise, also emphasizes the importance of timing. “Buy everything on sale,” stresses McMurdy. “Never pay full price.”

She’s a big fan of some discounters and insists that there is only one place to go for footwear ? Winners, the national discount chain that specializes in selling off manufacturers’ overruns and end-of-line-items. It features unbeatable prices on brand-name designer lines. “I buy many of my shoes there,” says McMurdy. “You can get Dolce & Gabbana and Anne Klein for just $80.”

For up-to-the-second fashion at the cheapest possible prices, McMurdy recommends the Zara and Mexx chains, which have outlets in several Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal. “If you want the absolute latest fashions then Zara and Mexx have the knock-offs you want,” says McMurdy. “They carry the latest, latest fashions and their selection changes weekly to keep up with fashion trends.”

Both Guertin and McMurdy are frequent browsers at Holt Renfrew Last Call for evening wear or upscale suits. The outlet has stores in Toronto and Winnipeg and carries many designer lines, marked down at the end of the season. You can find labels galore, including Armani and Prada. Men can also score well, with suits by Zegna from $500 and Hugo Boss from $399. “It’s common to find $1,000 suits marked down to $150 to $200,” notes McMurdy. “My favorite store is the Holt Renfrew Last Call in Winnipeg. When I travel there I always go in and check it out. Last year I bought a really nice suit that can be worn spring, summer and fall for $125.”

So what’s the next hot place to shop? Guertin bubbles over with enthusiasm as she talks about her favorite store, H&M, which will be opening five shops in Canada in 2004. She raves about H&M’s bargain versions of runway fashions, including skirts, pyjamas, handbags and nail polish. One of the chain’s best deals: stylish shirts that start at an unbelievable $5 (U.S.). If up-to-the-minute style is what you want, you won’t be disappointed. “Last fall I bought my winter coat for about $100 at the H&M store in London,” says Guertin. “It’s off-white and has great big cuffs. I’ve never received so many compliments.”

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Inspector Gadget

Andy Walker holds the best garage sales going. He has to, or else his home in Berkeley, Calif., would soon disappear under a midden of circuit boards and a mountain of almost-new electronics gear. “At the moment I have ? let’s see ? four computers in the house,” he says. “There’s a wireless network, too, of course. Also seven or so cellphones, a couple of printers and assorted other paraphernalia.”

The gadgets are all tools of the trade for Walker, 36, a consumer-electronics guru who reviews scores of new devices every year. But despite his Futurama-esque living space, the Montreal native is the first to point out that he isn’t an engineer but someone who’s interested in the nooks and crannies of hardware. He sees himself as a representative of the tech-addled average consumer. His specialty is explaining the intricacies of computers and consumer electronics in language anyone can understand.

Walker launched his writing career as a general assignment reporter for The Toronto Sun in 1989. He fell into the world of technology during the mid-’90s when he helped set up the Web site for the Southam newspaper chain. During his stint at Southam, he began penning a column for the Edmonton Journal called “Cyberwalker.” The column was a Dear Abby-style feature in which readers would write in with their questions about new media and related computer matters. “People wanted a translator who could put things in English,” Walker says. “They’d see an ad in the paper for a computer but the description would be full of technical gobbledegook. What they really wanted to know was if the computer would do what they wanted it to do.”

Walker set out to tell them. After a two-year stint with Microsoft, he went out on his own, launching Cyberwalker Media, a Web site ( and business that specializes in making technology accessible to anyone ? even people who find themselves challenged by programming their VCRs. A year ago, he moved his base of operations to Berkeley, where he’s executive editor of Dig iT, a new semi-annual magazine aimed at the high-tech shopper and the technology enthusiast. He also continues to write for other outlets, including

So what advice does one of North America’s best-informed tech journalists have on getting great deals in computers? His favorite tip is what he calls the 80% rule ? find the fastest computer on the market (as measured in gigahertz), then look for a machine that’s 80% as fast. You’ll wind up with a year-old model that will still be up to date for the next couple of years, but will only cost you half as much as the latest, hottest model. “Only true power users need the newest machines,” says Walker. “Most people should take advantage of the rapid fall-off in computer prices ? manufacturers typically try to recoup their research costs by charging premium prices for new machines, but as soon as the machine is superseded by something newer, they’ll try to unload older inventory at deep discount prices.”

Which type of computer you buy should depend upon your level of technical expertise. If you’re not computer savvy, it makes sense to go with a major brand ? Dell, Compaq, Apple or others. But if you are comfortable with the notion of doing your own troubleshooting, or if you know a techie who’ll do it for you, you can often save $200 to $300 by buying a no-name brand from a local computer shop. “What you’re really paying for with a name brand computer is the technical support,” says Walker. “In most cases, the hardware isn’t all that different from what you’ll find at the corner shop, but name brands have that 1-800 number you can call if you get into trouble. If you don’t need the technical support, why pay for it?”

Computer accessories carry their own hazards for unwary shoppers. Inkjet printers, for instance, usually appear to be a great deal, but often aren’t. To avoid surprises, look at the machines in your price range and take note of which ink cartridges they take. Then stroll over to the ink cartridge aisle of any office-supply store and see how much those cartridges cost. If you’re going to use the printer occasionally, multiply the price of the appropriate cartridge by four; if you’re going to use the printer a lot, multiply the price by 10. The result will approximate your annual cost of running the printer. Once you’ve done the math, go back and see if that $99 printer you initially liked still looks like a bargain. Chances are, it’s not.

No matter what type of tech gear you’re buying, it pays to remember to shop by the season. Many technology manufacturers introduce new products twice a year. Sixty days before doing so, they chop the price of old inventory. You can find out when this is likely to happen by going to the manufacturer’s Web site and looking in the Press or Media section, where you can scan press releases from previous years. You’ll likely see a pattern. Palm, for instance, usually introduces new models of its hand-held personal digital assistants in the spring and fall. Prices for older units typically drop in February/March and September/October, just before the latest models are introduced.

Of course, in Walker’s household, it’s always new product time. Surveying his extensive collection of technology, he muses that he has become entirely dependent upon the gizmos that he writes about. “I can’t live without my wireless laptop,” he says. “No matter where I am in the world, it’s on my back. The idea of not having it at hand gives me deep-seated panic.” Until, that is, an even better product comes along.

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Your Biggest Bet

When Alan and Hannah Silverstein bought their first home in 1981, they were upset to feel a cold draft from their family room wall. The entire wall of the room felt chilly and, as winter set in, ice began to form along the baseboard. Alan complained to the builder, who insisted that nothing was wrong. To demonstrate how well insulated the house was, he pulled out a penknife and jabbed it into the wallboard. “He looked at the hole he had made. Then he cut it larger,” Alan says. “And larger still. It turned out that the wall hadn’t been insulated at all.”

The experience taught Silverstein that glossy surfaces can hide a lot of nasty surprises. In the years since that first home purchase, he’s built a real estate law practice in Toronto and written several books on property buying, including The Perfect Mortgage and Homebuying Strategies for Resale Homes. The one piece of advice he gives all his clients and readers? Take your time before buying. “In real estate,” he says, “you can’t leave anything to chance. The contract to buy a home should be the conclusion of the book, not chapter one.”

Silverstein, 52, says the best way to begin your real estate search is with a bit of soul searching. Jot down on a sheet of paper a list of your needs and then an accompanying list of your wants. Be as specific as possible. Do you need to have a double-car garage? A home office? Do you want — but not need — a park nearby? A second bathroom? Compiling these lists forces you to think through your desires; it lets you see what features are most important to you and it points out any differences between you and your spouse. Most important, the lists help you to avoid rash decisions. According to Silverstein, only if a home satisfies all of your needs and most of your wants will you be happy. Trying to shoehorn yourself into a make-do arrangement simply because it’s cheap is usually a recipe for misery — you’ll end up frustrated and wanting to move within a year.

Of course, you must also consider your financial state. One time-honored rule holds that you should never buy a home that costs more than three times your gross family income, but exactly how much debt you’re prepared to take on will depend upon your job security, your age and how many children you’re supporting. To find out what you can potentially borrow, you should visit your local bank and get a pre-approved mortgage before you start shopping. There’s no cost or obligation for this service and it can be helpful in fixing an upper limit to your house hunting. Remember, though, that the maximum amount the bank will lend you is just that — the maximum, not the recommended amount. If you can buy a house that satisfies your needs and wishes for less, you should do so.

Now it’s time to start shopping. Silverstein suggests that true bargain hunters wait until December. The winter months, especially the weeks right around Christmas, are the slowest time of the year for the real estate market and prices are often more flexible than they are in the spring rush. If you’re a first-time buyer, Silverstein recommends a bungalow as the ideal purchase, both for practicality and for resale value in the years ahead. “Eventually baby boomers are going to start to downsize and not everyone wants a condo. There will be a lot of competition for bungalows between people looking for a starter home and the downsizers.”

For maximum resale value, steer clear of monster homes — Silverstein believes that mammoth properties are going to be increasingly hard to sell as boomers age and their kids leave home. Also to be avoided are properties that appeal only to narrow markets. Houses with only two bedrooms can be troublesome to resell because they limit the range of potential buyers. Homes that lack parking or that have a swimming pool also cut down on your resale opportunities. If you’re buying a condo that doesn’t include a parking space, Silverstein recommends that you pay extra for one — you can always rent it out if you don’t have a car and it will make reselling your condo far easier.

Spend a bit of time getting to know the community around any property you’re thinking of buying. The most effective way to get acquainted is take a couple of extended walks through the neighborhood, once on a weeknight and once on a weekend afternoon. If possible, stop and talk with local residents. They can fill you in on everything from the quality of the local schools to the best shopping in the area.

If you have doubts about a neighborhood’s safety, call the local police station and ask about the area’s break-in rate and crime level. Most police officers will be happy to share their knowledge. If you’re going to be commuting every day to work, consider trying the commute for a couple of days before making any decision. Too often a trip to work that looks quite bearable on paper turns out to be an ordeal in reality.

The best investment you can make is $300 to $400 for a complete home inspection by a qualified home inspector before you make an offer to purchase. But even if a home appears perfect and passes an inspection with flying colors, don’t get involved in a bidding war. Real estate agents love these contests but you’ll never get value for your money if you’re pitting your chequebook against a dozen other enthusiastic buyers. “The ability to walk away is vital,” says Silverstein. “The same as a poker player, you have to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.”

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Real Simple

Christine Cushing has seen what lurks in other people’s kitchens and it scares her. Open up a cupboard in many homes and you’ll tumble upon a museum of expensive mistakes ? an unused juicer sitting next to a bread maker that last saw daylight at Christmas. But ask for something as simple as a decent set of knives and chances are that you’ll meet with disappointment. Ditto if you’re looking for a simple wooden cutting board.

“It’s the basic things that matter,” says Cushing, author of the cookbook Fearless in the Kitchen and the star of TV’s Food Network Canada. She believes every home cook needs a few essentials: a good set of pots, a reliable set of knives, an all-purpose mixer or food processor, and a wooden cutting board. Too often people mistake high design for high practicality. For instance, “the glass cutting boards that a lot of cooks have are useless. They may look good but they’re impractical and hard to chop on.”

Nearly every good meal begins with some slicing or cutting so smart cooks start their shopping there. Purchase No. 1: a decent wooden cutting board, which will set you back all of about $25 at any kitchen supply store. Purchase No. 2: a good, basic set of knives. No need to buy a complete set of blades if you don’t want to. All you really require are three essentials: a paring knife for peeling vegetables, an eight-inch chef’s knife for all-purpose cutting and a knife with a serrated edge for slicing breads and cakes. You should be able to get all three for about $225. While there are many good knife manufacturers, Cushing is a fan of the Victorinox brand because its blades are well balanced and feel good in her hand. She also recommends checking out the German-made Wüsthof line ( They’re slightly curved at the bottom to create a rocking motion that makes chopping less of a chore.

A good food processor can also save you a lot of tedium. While Cushing is no fan of most single-purpose gadgets, she considers a processor to be the jewel of the kitchen because it performs so many jobs, from pureeing soups to grating cheese and mixing cake batter. The Kitchen Aid model for $350 is her particular fave. “It’s really good quality,” she says. “It has a double bowl in it so you get a big-size food processor and a little insert bowl as well so you don’t have to buy two pieces of machinery. And you also get a plastic blade for dough if you need it.”

Pots and pans complete the list of kitchen essentials. For year-round discounts on top-end pots and huge selection on commercial restaurant cookware, Cushing recommends you check out restaurant supply shops that sell to the public such as Dinetz (416-368-8657) and Nikolaou (416-504-6411) in Toronto. Or for a pleasant shopping experience with great variety and good prices, try Cayne’s Super Housewares in Thornhill, Ont. (905-764-1188) or Basic Stock Cookware in Vancouver (604-736-1412).

If you must shop at a department store or a cookware retailer, shun prepackaged sets that bundle together a dozen or more items-you’ll usually wind up paying for cookware you never use. Instead, devote your budget to buying fewer but better pots that you’ll use daily. Cushing particularly likes Paderno cookware ( or 1-800-263-9768), which is constructed of stainless steel with an aluminum pad on the bottom to transmit heat evenly. Most cooks will find their day-to-day needs satisfied by three essentials: a wide skillet with a lid for stir-fries and sauces ($135), a 1.5-litre saucepan with lid ($100) and a large pot for boiling pasta ($100). If you can afford a little more, go for cookware by All-Clad or KitchenAid. Both charge about $160 for a basic saucepan. By sandwiching stainless steel around an aluminum core, these pots heat rapidly and evenly.

While you’re at it, spend $35 or so for a good cast-iron frying pan. That’s a lot easier to swallow than the $170 price tag for a stainless-steel model from All-Clad. Yes, the cast-iron pan will require maintenance but it will last a lifetime if treated properly. “It’s the one frying pan I couldn’t live without,” says Cushing. “I season it with a little bit of oil and the more you season it the better it works. I know people who still have the cast-iron frying pan from their grandmother’s days. It’s almost stick-proof when you keep it well-oiled.”

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Car Lot Karate

Jim Garland believes that an average car buyer can save thousands of dollars on the price of a new car. “You can count on a minimum saving of $1,000 if you shop intelligently,” says Garland, president of J.R. Enterprises of Barrie, Ont., a firm that advises consumers on how to get the best car deal. “In most cases, you can reduce the cost by $2,000 to $4,000.”

Garland’s Tip No. 1 for smart auto shopping is deceptively simple — it’s to figure out the car you really want. Often that’s not the car you think you want. Garland says that advertising or false impressions of quality often lead drivers to focus their searches on inappropriate vehicles. He recalls a client who called him up, eager to buy a new Nissan Altima although he had never actually driven one. He wanted Garland’s help to negotiate a good deal. Instead, Garland insisted that the man go to the dealership and take the car for a lengthy test drive. “He phoned me back the next day and said, ‘I’m really glad you suggested I go drive it, because I didn’t like it.'”

The most comfortable place to start your search for a new car is from a seat in your local library or in front of your computer. Begin by checking out Consumer Reports, the king of objective, deeply researched auto rankings. Many libraries have copies of the magazine or you can access ratings online at for $5.95 (U.S.) a month. Also authoritative is Car and Driver magazine, the bible of the true auto enthusiast. The magazine’s online forums are especially fascinating because they give you a chance to see what real drivers are saying about their vehicles.

If you’re particularly interested in safety issues, spend a few additional minutes at the Web site of the U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It provides safety rankings on dozens of car models. And, for a Canadian perspective, check out Lemon-Aid, an annual car-ranking guide connected to the Automobile Protection Association (APA), a non-profit Toronto-based organization that acts as a consumer advocate and information resource for car buyers. You can find out more about the organization at

Once you’ve found the right car — or, at least, drawn up a short list — it’s time to negotiate the right price. The simplest, most painless option is to sign up for the APA’s new vehicle buying service. You pay $65. In exchange, you get access to a list of recommended dealers who promise to sell a selection of models to program members for low, non-negotiable prices. The APA claims that the program saves you $200 to $1,000 off the price of a new vehicle. And you don’t have to do any dickering.

If you prefer to negotiate your own deal, consider timing your purchase for maximum advantage. September is an excellent month to find bargains because dealers will often knock several hundred dollars off sticker prices to clear out last year’s cars before the new models arrive in the fall. January is also prime time for deals. Post-Christmas business tends to be slow and dealers are eager to move product.

The more popular a vehicle, the less negotiating room you will have. Japanese and European vehicles rarely fetch much less than their sticker prices and sometimes go for a premium. North American cars, on the other hand, sell for as much as $2,000 less than their suggested price. And these days, domestic manufacturers are willing to throw in 0% financing as well.

If you want to know exactly how hard you can bargain, consider buying an APA membership for $52. Among other benefits, you get access to the dealer’s cost for most vehicles. (If you’re not a member, the service costs $25 per search.) Armed with this information, you know what the dealer is making from the sale and, hence, how low you can go.

Garland stresses that you should never buy any car immediately after a test drive. Tell the salesperson when you arrive on the lot that you will not be buying a car today. That way, he or she won’t pester you to close the deal. After the test drive, leave the dealership. “You don’t want to be processing your feelings with a salesman talking in your ear,” says Garland. “You want to go away and have a coffee.”

Try to test drive all the cars you’re interested in on the same day. You’ll find it easier to make comparisons. And make sure that you test drive the exact model you intend to buy. A popular sales trick is to offer you a spin in a model that has all the bells and whistles when you’re interested only in the base model.

If you intend to trade in your old vehicle, know what it’s worth. Many dealerships lowball you, hoping that you won’t have the energy to fight. You can quickly find out what most used vehicles should fetch by referring to Canadian Red Book, available in many public libraries. (You can order a copy for $11.95 online at or call 905-469-6468.) “Some people will say, ‘I have a busy life and I haven’t got the time to do all this research,'” Garland says. “But the process doesn’t have to go on for months. It’s just the difference between making a rash decision and waiting a week and getting a good deal.”

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Better Bidness

Although Yank Azman has bought thousands of items at auctions over the past 34 years, he still remembers the excitement of making his very first winning bid, back in 1969. The item that got his heart racing? A ceiling lamp that he bought for $200 and later resold at a small profit.

Azman, 55 years old, may now be Canada’s most experienced auction buyer. “The appeal of auctions is that they combine a social experience with the commercial act of trying to buy something for the lowest price possible,” he explains. After his first winning bid, Azman was hooked on the experience. He returned to auctions again and again — mostly in the Toronto region — looking for deals on unique treasures. He even built a career around the objects he bought. At his store, called simply Yank Azman Toronto, he specializes in “guy stuff,” a broad swath of antiques that includes cameras, walking canes, rare books and old baseball gloves — a lot of it found at auctions. “I’m not a volume buyer,” he says. “I buy specific items at specific sales.”

As Azman and others will tell you, auctions are ideal places to shop for, well, just about anything: antique furniture, original art, old books, collectibles — and even stereo equipment, bicycles and cars. The big attraction? You’ll often pay prices that are far lower than what you’ll find at antique shops or specialty stores. That’s because you usually end up paying wholesale prices, or what antique dealers pay for items before they mark up prices in their stores.

Shawn Gannaw, vice president of A Touch of Class Auction & Appraisal Service, based in Barrie, Ont., estimates consumers regularly save up to 50% by buying at auctions over retail stores. Even in an intense bidding war, you’ll likely come out ahead. “If an antique dealer intends to sell an item for $100, he might set a maximum price of $60 for the item at an auction,” says Gannaw. “But a consumer can spend $90 on the same item and still save money.” The same holds true for big-ticket items like cars. BDF Auction, based in Saanichton, B.C., auctions used cars every Saturday morning at 10:30. The auction house says consumers save on average about $2,000 on the price of comparable vehicles at used car lots.

As good as the deals are, the entertainment is even better. You’ll get a kick out of dueling for oriental carpets, oak tables and old phonograph players. Making a winning bid — especially one that is below what you expected to pay — can be downright exhilarating. Heck, even watching an auction from the sidelines can be fun.

To get the most out of your auction experience, start by observing the action. This will give you a feel for how the bidding is conducted and payments are made. Next, research items thoroughly so that you have a good idea of what they’re worth. As Azman says, “Rule No. 1 is do your homework.” Attend previews and inspect the items you’re interested in. Then consult books or search the Internet for the approximate value of comparable items. Set a target price and stick to it during the auction.

When the bidding starts, don’t be in a rush to make the first bid. If there is little interest in a particular item, the auctioneer will sometimes lower the starting bid, giving you a better chance of scooping up a true bargain. When it comes to popular items, plant yourself in front of the auctioneer and establish yourself as an enthusiastic bidder early on. Your steadfast determination may scare off rival bidders and get you a better price. Finally, consider becoming a regular at a particular auction. Once you’ve established yourself as a reliable buyer for certain types of goods, auctioneers may do the legwork for you. “If you become a regular bidder and the auction house knows what you’re after, they will often call to tell you that something is coming up in a sale,” says Azman. “They want you to be there just as much as you want to get the item.” For example, he often receives calls when scientific instruments go up for auction.

Azman’s favorite auction is Waddington’s Auctioneers & Appraisers, based in Toronto. Just about every week, the company auctions off household furniture, stereos, televisions, china and original art. Waddington’s also holds specialty auctions throughout the year, when Inuit art, movie posters, photographic equipment, rare books and the like fall under the gavel. You can find out more at or call 416-504-9100. Other big-name auctions in Canada include Ritchie Brothers Auctioneers, based in Bolton, Ont., and Maynard’s in Vancouver.

Smaller, more local auctions are easy to track down on the Internet. One of the best resources is The Incurable Collector’s Web site. Here, you’ll find detailed information on hundreds of auctions across North America. Simply click on a province, territory or state and the site will give you the lowdown on all upcoming auctions. If you live in Alberta, try the Auctioneers’ Association of Alberta ( or 403-340-2070), based in Red Deer. Or, if you’re an Ontarian, log on to Auctionsfind. Both sites will give you information on all the auction action in their respective provinces. But be warned: once you attend an auction, department stores will never look the same again.

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