For a long time, I thought “sale” and “clearance” were pretty much interchangeable. Turns out, knowing the difference can help you predict whether that item you’ve got your eye on is going to get another price cut, go back up to full price… or even sell out while you’re still thinking it over (bummer).
So what’s what?
A sale is a limited-time discount. Usually, sales are in the 10%–50% off discount range. For example, these pretty blue ombre glass candleholders from World Market used to be $7.99–$12.99; now they're on sale for 30% off, at $5.59–$9.09. After the sale, one of two things will happen: they could go back up to full price, or they might get put on clearance. Which leads us to…
Clearance deals are closeout offers on merchandise retailers want to get off their shelves. Usually, they’re making way for new inventory, so you’ll see a lot of great deals at the end of a season (swimsuits during back-to-school shopping, anyone?) At a certain point, retailers might even take a loss just to make way for all that shiny new merchandise. These are the deepest discounts you’ll see—high as 90%. The Nordstrom Rack clearance section, for example, has deals up to 85% off. But when they're gone, they're gone.
Which is better? It depends what you’re looking for.
Sales are a great way to find merchandise in season, when you need it, at a great price. Summer sales are getting underway even now. And if you’re looking for something specific, the clearance selection might be too limited.
On the other hand, you can find some truly tremendous deals on the clearance racks. You just have to have a little more patience and a good eye for a great find.