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Shopping

Business Hours

The hours of operation depend on the store, and can vary significantly from city to city. Most stores will open between 9:00 and 10:00 am and close at 5:00 or 6:00 pm, Monday through Friday. Some stores will open as early as 8:00 am and some will close as late as 9:00 or 10:00 pm.

Banks tend to close at 3:00 or 4:00 pm, restaurants at 8:00 or 9:00 pm, and bars at 11:00 pm to 1:00 am. Stores in shopping malls keep longer hours, with the typical mall store being open 10:00 am to 9:00 pm, Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5:00 pm on Sunday.

When most stores in a shopping area close at 5:00 or 6:00 pm weekdays, there will usually be one day a week when they are open late. Which day varies from community to community.

Some stores will be open on Saturday. A smaller number of stores will be open on Sunday. Stores with Sunday hours tend to open between 10:00 am and noon, and to close at 5:00 or 6:00 pm, even if they are open until 9:00 or 10:00 pm the rest of the week.

Large grocery store chains are usually open 24 hours a day, except possibly on Sunday. Some pharmacies will also be open 24 hours.

Sales Tax

There is no national sales tax in the US, but each state has its own sales tax. The sales tax is charged as a percentage surcharge on purchases, and is printed on the receipt. Rates differ from state to state. Rates may even differ within a state. For example, Pennsylvania charges 6% sales tax, except in Allegheny County (city of Pittsburgh and surrounding communities) where the sales tax rate is 7%.

Unprepared food such as groceries is exempt from sales tax, but prepared food purchased in a restaurant is not. Clothing and medicine may also be exempt from sales tax.

The following table lists state sales tax rates. There may also be an additional local sales tax imposed regionally within the state. Local sales taxes run from a low of 0% to a high of 7%. Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia do not have local sales taxes.

State Sales Tax Rates
StateRateStateRateStateRate
Alabama4.000%Kentucky6.000%North Dakota5.000%
Alaska0.000%Louisiana4.000%Ohio5.000%
Arizona5.000%Maine5.500%Oklahoma4.500%
Arkansas4.625%Maryland5.000%Oregon0.000%
California6.000%Massachusetts5.000%Pennsylvania6.000%
Colorado3.000%Michigan6.000%Rhode Island7.000%
Connecticut6.000%Minnesota6.500%South Carolina5.000%
Delaware0.000%Mississippi7.000%South Dakota4.000%
District of Columbia5.750%Missouri4.225%Tennessee6.000%
Florida6.000%Montana0.000%Texas6.250%
Georgia4.000%Nebraska4.500%Utah4.750%
Hawaii4.000%Nevada6.500%Vermont5.000%
Idaho5.000%New Hampshire0.000%Virginia3.500%
Illinois6.250%New Jersey6.000%Washington6.500%
Indiana5.000%New Mexico5.000%West Virginia6.000%
Iowa5.000%New York4.000%Wisconsin5.000%
Kansas4.900%North Carolina4.000%Wyoming4.000%

If you purchase an item by mail order and the company has offices in your state, they will collect sales tax on your purchase. Many states have passed laws requiring you to voluntarily pay sales tax on telephone and mail order purchases whether the sales tax was not collected. But practically speaking you will not have to pay sales tax on many mail order purchases.

Many airports have duty free shopping areas, where sales tax is not charged. This is only worthwhile when you are traveling to a country with a high sales tax rate. The average state sales tax rate in the US is 3%. You can usually find the same items on sale in the US for a lower price, even when sales tax is taken into account.

Saving Money

Major department stores frequently have sales in which merchandise is sold at a discount, typically anywhere from 5% to 25% off the normal price. Not everything in the store will be on sale. Sale prices are usually advertised in the Sunday newspaper. Stores will use almost any excuse for a sale, such as holidays and end-of-season clearance. The Christmas shopping season officially starts the Friday after Thanksgiving, but some stores will offer sales starting the weekend before Thanksgiving. If you don't need something immediately, it is best to wait until it is on sale. The major department store chains are Sears, Macy's, Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom, Kohls, and JC Penney.

Supermarkets are large grocery stores, often part of a chain of stores. It is generally less expensive to shop in a supermarket than in a small local grocery, and the selection is larger. The major grocery store chains advertise their sale prices in circulars that are distributed by mail toward the end of the week, and sometimes as an insert in the Sunday newspaper. The Sunday newspaper will also include collections of manufacturer cents-off coupons which you can clip and give to the cashier to save on purchases. Some supermarkets will double the value of manufacturer coupons. For non-perishable goods, it is worthwhile to stock up when the item goes on sale. The supermarkets may also have their own brands which sell for less than the popular name brands. Some supermarkets have membership cards which the cashier will scan to give you automatic discounts on some items. The supermarkets use the cards to track your purchases, enabling them to better target their promotions.

Discount stores sell name brand merchandise at prices which are less than the prices charged by department stores. They may also give discounts for bulk purchases and sell "irregular" items or "seconds" as a discount. Irregular items have small imperfections such as variations in size, color, or weave that will not affect the durability of the product. Seconds are items with a small amount of damage, such as rips or tears. They often advertise in the Sunday newspaper and may have sales in addition to their already discounted prices. Discount stores are often located near shopping malls. The largest discount stores are Wal-Mart, K Mart, Ames, Best Buy, Service Merchandise, and Ross Stores. For electronic goods you can also go to Circuit City. For computer equipment, you can visit a CompUSA store, but you'll probably be able to buy it at lower prices by mail order from CDW, PC Connection, or Insight. Micron Electronics and Gateway sell high quality computers through mail order as well. For toys, go to a Toys R Us store or visit web sites like eToys or Wishbook. For discount clothing stores, there's also TJ Maxx, and Marshalls.

Discount clubs are similar to discount stores, but they sell goods in a warehouse setting with minimal customer service. You must become a member in order to shop at these clubs. The most popular discount clubs are Sam's Club (a division of Wal-Mart), Costco, and BJ's Wholesale Club. If you ever need restaurant-size vats of peanut butter or mayonnaise, visit a discount club.

Outlet stores offer a specific manufacturer's products, often at a slight discount (5% to 10%). True outlet stores used to offer steeper discounts, but these are gradually disappearing as manufacturers learn to manage inventory better. The outlet stores you find in outlet malls are more properly called factory stores. Some outlet stores, however, will sell factory refurbished items at a moderately steep discount compared to the price for new items (at least 30%).

Department stores may have a clearance section, where merchandise they no longer stock is being sold at a discount.

For extremely inexpensive used clothing and used furniture, go to a Goodwill, Salvation Army, or other thrift store. The money raised from sale of the merchandise is used for charitable causes. See the yellow pages for the names and locations of the thrift stores in your area.

Computer and audio equipment can often be purchased much more cheaply via mail order. A variety of web sites now track mail order prices for computers and other equipment. The most popular sites are PriceWatch, PriceScan, StreetPrice, StreetPrices, ShopFind, BuyingGuide, PriceTrac, and Junglee. Some of these services will even display graphs showing how the price has changed over time.

Paying for Purchases

All stores will accept US currency. No stores will accept foreign currency. Many stores will accept US-denominated traveler's checks. Traveler's checks in foreign currency will be refused.

Most people, however, do not carry around large sums of money. Instead they pay for purchases with a credit card or personal check. Most stores will accept the major credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, Discover Card, and American Express). Even grocery stores are starting to accept credit cards.

The larger department stores will try to encourage you to open a charge account at the store, often by offering a 10% discount on your purchases the day you open the account. Store charge cards work similarly to credit cards, except there's never an annual fee and the card is only good for purchases at the store.

A few stores offer a Visa or MasterCard with the store's logo and a discount on purchases at the store. These cards can be used at other stores, and earn a percentage rebate which can be used at the store that issued the card. For example, TJ Maxx and Marshalls offer the TJX card, which gives a 2% rebate on purchases at either store, and a 1% rebate on purchases elsewhere. The rebates are issued in the form of $10 certificates that are good for purchases at TJ Maxx and Marshalls.

Most stores that accept Discover Card also accept Visa and MasterCard. The most significant exception are Sears, which only accepts the Discover Card and Sears Charge, and Sam's Club, which only accepts Discover Card.

Purchases may also be paid for by personal check drawn on a US bank. The store will want to see two forms of identification, such as a driver's license and a major credit card. Some stores do not accept checks, or charge a high returned check fee if the check bounces. Some stores that accept checks will not accept checks drawn on an out-of-state bank. Most supermarkets accept checks, but require you to get a check cashing card which you will show whenever you wish to pay by check. This avoids the need for you to show two forms of identification every time you write a check.

For more information on credit cards, please see the Money and Banking section of this site.

Return Policies

Most stores will accept returns of unopened merchandise, provided that you can present the original purchase receipt. If you received the item as a gift, sometimes a receipt will not be necessary.

Some stores will accept returns of opened merchandise, provided that you return it in its original packaging and have not damaged it. If you are returning clothing, you must not have washed it and the clothing must not be soiled.

The store will give you a cash refund or a credit toward future purchases in the store. If the item was defective or damaged inside the box, the store may also allow an even exchange with an identical item. If you pay by credit card and want a refund, the refund will be credited to your credit card. Some stores do not give cash refunds, only store credits. The store's return policy should be posted somewhere on the premises. If the store gives cash refunds, they may charge a 15% restocking fee, especially if the box has been opened.

There may be a time limit on returns. If you discover that the item is defective or does not fit properly, almost all stores will accept a return the next day. Some stores will give you a week to return merchandise, and some as much as 30, 60, or 90 days from the date of purchase.

Computer stores will not accept returns of software if the seal has been broken.

Clothing

Clothing stores often have dressing rooms where you can try on clothing to make sure it fits. It is strongly recommended that you try on any clothing before buying it, since clothing is tailored differently in the US and clothing sizes are not consistent. (Women's clothing sizes are extremely variable, in part because women want to believe that they fit into a size 6 when they are actually a size 12.) Socks must be worn when trying on shoes or sneakers, and you will not be allowed to take bags or packages into the fitting room.

The following tables show the correspondence between US and European clothing sizes. Sizes for gloves, socks, and stockings are the same in both the US and Europe. Sock sizes correspond to the length of your foot.

In addition to the sizes listed below, clothing sometimes uses approximate size measures, such as XS (Extra Small), S (Small), M (Medium), L (Large), and XL (Extra Large). These letters are especially common on T-shirts. Each letter may represent a range of two or three numbered sizes. International students from Asia should expect their large to correspond to a medium in the United States. But it is best to try on the clothing for fit, because there is little consistency among manufacturers.

Men's Clothing Sizes
Shirts Suits, Coats,
and Sweaters
Shoes Hats Underwear
USEuropeUSEuropeUSEuropeUSEuropeUSEurope
14363444638654345
14-1/2373646739756366
153838488407-1/458387
15-1/23940509417-1/260408
1641425210427-3/462429
16-1/24244541143  4410
174346561244  4611
17-1/24448581345  4812

Men's shirt and pants sizes are more consistent than women's clothing sizes because they reflect the actual size of their dimensions in inches. Men's shirt sizes measures the circumference of the neck and are mostly consistent. If a second number is listed, it is usually the sleeve length, and runs from 32 to 36 inches. Men's pants are sized using the waist measurement and the inseam measurement. The inseam is the distance from crotch to hem. Men's coats are measured according to chest size, measuring under the arms.

Women's Clothing Sizes
Blouses
and Sweaters
Shoes Dresses
Junior Sizes
Dresses
Misses Sizes
Dresses
Women's Sizes
USEuropeUSEuropeUSEuropeUSEuropeUSEurope
32383353304343242
34404365326363444
36425377348383646
384463893610403848
4046739113812424050
4248840134014444252
4450941154216464454
46521042  18484656

Dress sizes depend on both height and figure type. A junior size corresponds to a height between 5'2" and 5'5" with a slender figure. A misses size corresponds to a height between 5'5" and 5'7" with a well proportioned figure. A women's size corresponds to a height between 5'5" and 5'8" and a fuller and rounder figure. The women's sizes do not correspond to bust measurements. A half size is somewhat shorter than a misses size and a bit fuller and rounder. A petite size is somewhat shorter than a misses size, with heights running from 4'8" to 5'4". The more expensive the dress, the more likely the manufacturer is to label the dress with a size or two smaller than its true size.

Brassiere sizes consist of the band size (a number) and the cup size (a letter). The band size is found by measuring around the rib cage just below the bust line, adding 5, and rounding up to the nearest even number. The cup size is found by measuring along the fullest part of the bust and subtracting the band size. The letters correspond to the result as follows: A (1"), B (2"), C (3"), D (4"), DD (5"), and DDD (6").

Men's hat sizes measure the diameter of the hat if it were deformed into a perfect circle. To obtain your measurements, measure the circumference of your head across the forehead and just below the curve of the skull in back and divide the result by Pi (3.14159). Women's hat sizes measure the circumference directly.

In the US, each whole shoe size differs by 1/3 of an inch. In Europe, whole shoe sizes differ by 2/3 of a centimeter (about 1/4 of an inch). This makes the correspondences between US and European shoe sizes only approximate. European shoe sizes are the same for men and women. In the US a woman's shoe is about 1 to 1-1/2 sizes greater than the same length men's shoe. Infant shoe sizes run from 0 (4 inches) to 13 (8-1/4 inches). These correspond to European sizes 15 to 31. Boy's shoe sizes run from 1 (8-1/2 inches) to 12 (12-1/4 inches). Girl's shoe sizes run from 1 (8-1/4 inches) to 9-1/2 (11 inches). Add 1 to the boy's size to get the equivalent girl's size. Of course, there's a lot of variability, so it is imperative to try on a shoe before purchasing. If the shoe fits, wear it.

Clothing sizes for babies are a nightmare, with several systems of measurement. The most common systems are the age system and the weight system. A good rule of thumb is to multiply the child's age by two, so that the clothing will fit for more than a month.

Alcohol

The legal drinking age in the United States is 21 years. Bars and liquor stores will require proof of age, such as a driver's license, before selling you any alcohol.

Alcoholic beverages are labeled with the percentage of alcohol, but the actual percentage may be as much as 1.5% higher or lower. Wine coolers range from 3% to 7%, table wines from 7% to 14%, dessert wines from 14% to 21%, and distilled spirits are over 24%.

Beer is not labeled with alcohol content, but is required to have at least 0.5% alcohol, and usually has between 4.5% and 5.5% alcohol. The amount of alcohol in a name brand beer will vary from state to state and even city to city. Liquor (whiskey, gin, brandy) is labeled using proof degrees. To convert a proof degree into a percentage measure of alcoholic content, divide by 2.

Light beer must have 1/3 fewer calories than the brewery's regular beer. Regular beer averages 150 calories and light beer 100 calories. The number of calories in a regular beer, however, can vary significantly from brewery to brewery.

Be careful when requesting a beer or other alcoholic beverages to use the proper units or you might get more or less alcohol than you expected. A British pint is twenty ounces while an American pint is 16 ounces.

 

 
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