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Best Way to Shop in This Lousy Economy San Francisco 2003 -

Department Store Sales

Markdowns, baby -- we live for 'em in the best of times. But they're even more important during this endless Bush recess- ... oops, economic downturn. Of course, if you're dead-set on a particular item, waiting for a sale can be risky, given the obvious: It can sell out. We advise that you buddy up with a sales clerk at your store of preference, so he can clue you in on discounts before they become public knowledge. "Pre-selling" is the most efficient shopping method: You leave your info with the clerk, including those items you want to buy, so they can be rung at the precise orgasmic moment of markdown. Besides getting what you want for a lot less, you avoid the hassle of trying to beat out Big Bertha from Hayward when you're going through the racks looking for that perfect sweater. Here are our favorite sale-oramas:

Nordstrom

San Francisco Centre, 865 Market (at Fifth Street), 243-8500, www.nordstrom.com

The "Anniversary Sale" is the largest such event of the year, when select fall merchandise is offered at a reduced price before it's available at regular price. The sale is storewide and runs from the end of July through the first week of August. Markdowns are usually 25 to 33 percent and items sell out quickly, so if you're not hip to pre-sell, you should shop during the first couple of days for the best selection. Nordstrom also offers semiannual sales: the "Men's Half-Yearly" (in December and June) and the "Women and Children's Half-Yearly" (in June and November). These are post-seasonal clearance events in which you can save big (up to 60 percent) -- and are particularly great times to stock up on year-round basics.

Macy's

170 O'Farrell (at Stockton), 397-3333, www.macys.com

There always seems to be a sale on at Macy's, which is fine by us. One click to their Web site and you'll find a pant sale, an intimate apparel sale, a cookware sale, and so on. The big draw here is the semiannual "Friends and Family Sale," when an additional 20 percent off (even clearance items) is offered to preferred customers. There are also the intermittent "One Day" sales, offering up to 40 percent savings; "Whiteflower Days," offering an additional 20 percent off in most, though not all, departments; and the ever-popular 10-percent-off coupon sales, usually offered once a month.

Neiman Marcus

150 Stockton (at Geary), 362-3900, www.neimanmarcus.com

"Last Call" (usually held in February and July) is the big draw at Neiman Marcus, when up to 70 percent off is offered on select post-seasonal items just before they're shipped out to one of the store's clearance centers -- making that Dolce and Gabbana suit we've had our eye on actually affordable. While NM's "First Call" (usually held in January and June) has a better selection of markdowns (30 to 40 percent off), "Last Call" will offer you that same item -- if it's still there! -- at an additional discount.

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