NEW YORK - Knowing what to buy when can save you money.
Most consumers know, for example, that retailers typically put their linens and cookware on sale in January, just as their post-holiday business starts to flag. There are, however, other seasonal shopping bargains to be had by careful consumers, such as spring fashion markdowns in April, back-to-school promotions in July and August, and pre-winter sales of coats, gloves and scarves in October.
"There are a lot of advantages to consumers who buy items when they're traditionally on sale," said Ellie Kay, the author of Shop, Save and Share and other financial self-help books. "For example, you typically save 15 percent to 50 percent by shopping a January 'white sale.'"
Ms. Kay suspects, however, that most consumers buy what they want when they want it, "which helps explain why there's so much consumer debt."
Her suggestion: "By modifying just a few shopping strategies, you can save your family a lot of money and reduce your debt load - and shopping seasonal sales is one way to do this."
Daniel Butler, the vice president for merchandising and retail operations at the National Retail Federation trade group in Washington, D.C., said seasonal sales traditions evolved in part to accommodate consumer desires.
Families tend to buy a lot of clothing and toys as holiday gifts.
"So home merchandise sales became popular in January and February, when people turn their focus to their homes and living environment," he said.
Another trend, he said, is consumers' desire to redecorate for the seasons, perhaps using different towels and bed linens in spring than in the fall and winter. Some stores schedule two white sales each year.
The month of May traditionally has been associated with Mother's Day and the promotion of items for women, Mr. Butler said.
It's also a good time to stock up on wedding gifts before the summer marriage season. He said many stores repeat wedding gift promotions in late summer and early fall, before the fall marriage season.
Although many retailers might appear to have merchandise on sale year-round, the best discounts generally are in the end-of-season clearance sales, Mr. Butler said. Fall and winter merchandise tends to go on sale in January, spring and summer goods go into clearance in June and July.
"Retailers want to clear out inventory to keep stores looking fresh and current," he said. "If you don't sell what you've got, the store will look stale."
C. Britt Beemer, the chairman of America's Research Group, a consumer research and business development firm in Charleston, S.C., said the main goal of sales is to keep consumers coming into the stores throughout the year.
"Fifty or 60 years ago, merchants tried different things, like holiday sales, but there weren't holidays in all 12 months. So what to do in March?" he said. "Retailers then adopted EOM sales - end of the month sales - in those months when there was no holiday.
"Over time, different months became identified with different categories."
Take furniture. Families, he said, think about buying new chairs and sofas in the fall as they begin getting ready for the winter holidays, so "starting Labor Day weekend, furniture sales jump dramatically."
To no one's surprise, the sale of school clothes and supplies are strong in July and August.
Ms. Kay, the consumer shopping expert, said families that shop sales still need to watch what they're doing.
"An item marked as on sale it not necessarily a good deal," she said. "Consumers need to do their homework - comparison shop, check the Web - to know whether the price is right."
And, she said: "Buying an item on sale isn't a good deal at all if you don't need it."
The National Retail Federation, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., offers this calendar to help consumers look for retail promotions and bargains:
January: End-of-season fall merchandise, home goods from linens to cookware to furniture
February: Valentine's Day, with promotions of jewelry, fragrances and other gifts
March: Summer merchandise arrives; brides begin registering for summer weddings
April: Spring fashion markdowns begin
May: Mother's Day promotions, sales of athletic apparel and athletic shoes
June and July: Father's Day promotions, summer clearance sales
August: Back-to-school bargains
September and October: Discounts on coats, gloves and scarves
November: Pre-Thanksgiving markdowns ahead of the Thanksgiving weekend rush
December: Holiday discounts on apparel and appliances