Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 04/30/2009

Good-Bye Shop To It

Saying good-bye to an old friend is always tough. And I'm afraid this is yet another tough good-bye. This is Shop To It's final blog post. Together we have tried to figure out this crazy world of retail since October 2007. As I write this farewell, it's only appropriate that I look back on all the valuable advice we've exchanged over the last 18 months. Here are a few of my favorite reader tips:

Tip #1: When it comes to keeping the clutter under control, reader FinallyOrganized shared with us a household rule that "if a new something comes in the house, something old must go." I think this is especially important when bringing in new toys, right kids?

Tip #2: Anyone who's buying furniture should heed the advice of McLean. Measure out the dimensions of the piece of furniture you're considering buying with masking tape on the floor of your room to see how the piece will actually fit. Great advice because furniture always looks bigger or smaller in the store than in your own house.

Tip #3: Not much would get Shop To It readers going like groceries. Anytime I wrote about food shopping, the comments just came pouring in. I especially liked the words of wisdom dispensed by Apostrophe, comparing the per-ounce costs of bigger sizes of items to the smaller ones. "...often, two or more of a smaller size on sale will be much less expensive than the huge 'economy size' package of the same product." Very true. Sometimes even bulk items at places like BJ's and Costco are more expensive per item than just buying the normal sizes at the grocery store.

Tip #4: Chass also had a great suggestion for grocery stores when it comes to their loyalty cards. "Wouldn't it be nice if, in return for allowing the store to collect all this information on our buying habits, if once a year they offered us patrons a copy of our annual purchases? It might be incredibly enlightening to see an annual aggregation of all of your purchases." I agree. You could pick out the items that you spend the most on and see if there are ways to save.

Tip #5: Many Shop To It readers skip right over the green products I mentioned in my recent Earth Day post and head straight to natural, make-at-home cleaners like vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice and borax. If they work, then they definitely would be a better bargain than some of the big-ticket green products on the market. Hey, we all want to save the planet but saving our bank accounts is a more immediate concern.

Tip #6: A few readers had some tips on buying house paint. If you like a designer color, take the paint chip to a place like Home Depot and Lowe's and ask them to match it. That way you avoid paying designer paint prices.

Tip #6: LBH219 had a good way to solve the dilemma of buying cheap versus buying quality. Stuff that's used for the short term can go cheap but the stuff that gets heavy-duty use should go the way of quality even if it's more expensive.

Tip #7: One of my favorite experts is Jeff Yeager, who introduced us to the concept of a fiscal fast. You may recall we spent a whole week without spending a single dime. It was a fun experiment and one that I actually continue to do from time to time. I do a Target fast every other month. Have you noticed a drop in their stock value since I started doing that?

Whether you're an environmentalist, a frugalist, a spender or a saver, my best piece of advice for this recession and any time after that is to think about each purchase before making it. Do you really need it? No, seriously. Do you really need it? Be honest with yourself. Because one thing I've learned about myself in the last 18 months is I buy too much. This blog was never about excessive shopping. It was always about making the right shopping decisions. And sometimes, just sometimes, that decision is to not buy, even if you have a coupon.

So farewell, dear readers. Thanks for all your valuable comments and the lively discussions. If you see me at Target or bump into my cart at Wegmans, say hi and show me the deals you've found.

Editor's Note: For more ways to save money, check out our new blog, Small Change.

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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 04/28/2009

Tuesday Tips: Window Treatments

I love looking out my kitchen window while I'm making breakfast in the mornings. But I sure don't want people looking in on me as I do this in my green and pink butterfly pajamas. That's why window treatments are a home's necessary evil. They not only keep out peering eyes but they also keep a house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. But they're evil because they can also be so expensive. So here are some tips for buying window treatments on a budget:

Tip #1: Custom-made curtain panels are one of the most affordable type of window treatments. The labor isn't as intense, so the cost will be somewhat lower than something more intricate like valances.

Tip #2: If custom-made treatments are out of the picture, places like Target and Wal-Mart have lots of options. But look for window treatments that are lined. "Not only does this create a look of uniformity from the outside of your home, but it gives the curtain a higher quality appearance," says Beth Bates, founder and creative director of The Sew Teacher, an Alexandria-based company that teaches people how to sew through classes and videos. Bates also says curtain panels made of natural fabric like cotton or linen will make a lower-cost window treatment look more like a custom-made investment.

Tip #3: Take lessons if you want to learn to make your own window treatments. Once you've had a good sewing lesson, you can save money on not only window treatments but all kinds of home décor like throw pillows and slipcovers. Bates says your first homemade window treatment should be for a room that's not on display for guests, such as a laundry room or a bathroom. "This gives you a chance to work out any quirks before you invest in quality fabric," Bates says.

Tip #4: Buy a plain Roman shade and line the edges with a decorative piece of ribbon. It makes the window treatment look a little more unique without having to spend a lot of money on something that's custom made.

Tip #5: Look for quality fabrics on the remnant tables in fabric stores. You'll find high-end decorator fabrics that are either discontinued or ones that are nearing the end of their supply. "Fabric stores generally want to move these fabrics out to make way for new fabrics," Bates says. "The name brand fabrics are often as low as $8 a yard." Fabric stores also have sales at the end of the season when stores are making way for the next season's new colors.

Tip #6: Be creative with the hardware. Decorators are using lots of organic options like bamboo sticks as curtain rods. Bates says she's seen clients use metal wire between two eye hooks, as well as hockey sticks and fairy wands in children's rooms. A PVC pipe wrapped in a coordinating fabric is another cheap option.

So where do you get your window treatments? What are some other ways to save on window decor without taking out a second mortgage?

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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 04/23/2009

Off the Beaten Path: Falls Church

Sorry Falls Church. Route 7, which you lovingly call Broad Street, has traditionally served as a means for me to get from Alexandria to Tysons Corner. I've failed to check out the cute little shops and restaurants that line your busy, narrow corridor, some of which has a speed limit of a mere 25 miles per hour. I finally stopped the other day and walked by your shops. Here's what I found:

New to You, a small shop that calls itself the "Chic Boutique," is a women's consignment store at 108 West Broad St. The shop owner says the store capitalizes on expensive buying mistakes made by women, selling high-end pieces that were bought with the best of intentions but never made it off the hanger. The store is very selective about what it accepts, limiting its labels to designers like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, and styles from the last year or two. It also accepts vintage clothes from the 1960s and earlier. And even then not everything gets on a New to You rack. The store only wants interesting and unique pieces, a standard that draws clothing from all over the country. Much of the clothing has original price tags with discounts of 35 percent to nearly 70 percent.

Falls Church's Broad Street and its side streets are also chock full of galleries and art dealers that sell local work, as well as art from all over. There's Quinn's Auction House at 431 North Maple Ave. The place has an auction every Wednesday night selling everything from antique furniture to jewelry and watches. Stifel & Capra, an art and ornament gallery at 260 West Broad, features local artists even with some of their own studios on site. Think of a miniature version of Alexandria's Torpedo Factory.

Bedo's Leatherworks at 412 West Broad is not exactly a shopping destination but an interesting business. The store will do just about anything that needs to be done to repair shoes, handbags and anything else made out of leather, as well as dry clean your clothes. The business, which looks like an old country store from the outside, was started in 1977 by Bedros Doudaklian, who immigrated from Lebanon. The store has been passed down to his son, who expanded the shop to include luggage repair and other related services. The store offers a "recrafting" service where an old pair of shoes could look new again with new soles and heels and other updates.

Broad Street is also home to Penzys Spices, a national chain of spice stores started in Wisconsin. It's hard to imagine that a whole store could be filled with spices but Penzys, located at 513 West Broad St., has everything from Honduran allspice and freeze-dried bell peppers to several different types of extracts and Turkish oregano.

Also check out Hole in the Wall Books, a small house at 905 West Broad filled from top to bottom with used books.

So where do you shop when you go to Falls Church? What are some other off-the-beaten-path shopping spots?

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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 04/21/2009

Saving Some Green When Buying Green

I love the thought of buying cleaning products that aren't harmful to the environment. So in honor of Earth Day on Wednesday, I went to four stores and one Web site to find out who had the best prices on some of the environmentally friendly cleaning products that have hit the shelves in the last few years. I focused on 7th Generation, a line of all-natural cleaners and recycled paper products, and Greenworks, an all-natural line of cleaners made by Clorox, and looked at how much these products cost at Target, Giant, CVS, Walmart and Amazon.com.

After braving the crowds on a recent Sunday afternoon, I concluded that Walmart had the better prices but Target had the most selection. Both stores sell Greenworks but Target also carries 7th Generation, Method and Mrs. Myers. Many of these products were on sale for Earth Day but I compared each of the stores' non-sale prices.

Walmart's prices on Greenworks were significantly lower than the competition's, sometimes 64 cents lower than Target and $1 cheaper than Giant. But it was a challenge to find any other brands at Walmart even though its Web site says it carries a cleaning line called "Earth Friendly Products." Greenworks was mixed in with its regular cleaning products, whereas Target and Giant had several shelves dedicated to their environmentally friendly cleaners, as well as recycled paper products.

Amazon.com, which sells its products in bulk, had the highest prices, with most items averaging $1 higher per container than the other stores. I suppose you could argue that you save money on gas by having it delivered to your home. The only deal on Amazon was on 7th Generation laundry detergent. The 50-ounce container was $6.03 per bottle in bulk, compared to Giant's price of $8.29 and Target's price of $7.99.

CVS had the second highest prices with some items being $1.50 higher than Walmart's prices.

Overall 7th Generation may be cheaper than Greenworks. Most of the sizes are different and the companies would probably argue that their ingredients and the method by which these products are made is different from each other. But a 32-ounce bottle of all-purpose cleaner made by 7th Generation was $2.99 at Target and Greenworks' all-purpose cleaner in the same size was $3.14. 7th Generation also has $1 and $2 off printable coupons on its Web site. You just have to become a registered user, which means providing them with an e-mail address.

So where do you shop for environmentally friendly cleaning products? Which products do you buy?

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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 04/16/2009

Tax Refund: To Spend or Not to Spend?

The last year has been an expensive one for my family. Starting with a broken air-conditioning system and a clogged pipe in our top floor bathroom that leaked water all the way down to our basement and ending with the renovation of two bathrooms and a kitchen. In the end I thought I had become a professional check writer. So it was welcome news when we found out that we would get a small tax refund this year. I knew there was a good reason for having two kids. As much as I would love to run to a furniture store and buy a new couch and coffee table, the voice of reason (my husband) is telling me we need to replenish some of the savings that was used to pay major expenses. So are you getting a tax refund this year?

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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 04/14/2009

Tuesday Tips: Choosing a Moving Company

The last time my husband and I moved, we hired three guys who were recommended by a neighbor. They showed up in an unmarked truck covered in graffiti to move our pitiful collection of furniture. It was a little sketchy but in the end our stuff arrived at our new house in pretty good condition. Things are a little different now with our second move. We have grown-up furniture and a lot more of it. So after several weeks of researching companies and gathering estimates, here are my tips on shopping for a moving company:

Tip #1: As soon as your house hits the market you'll start getting promotional cards in the mail and phone calls. Look through them for interesting deals. Research some of the names and see how they fare on consumer review services like Washington Checkbook magazine and Angie's List.

Tip #2: Get recommendations from friends and family. Anyone who's ever used a moving company will have strong opinions about whether they were good or not. Some of the best moving companies just get business through word of mouth, so you may not even get a promotional card.

Tip #3: Get several in-home estimates. No company will be able to tell you an accurate figure of how much it will cost to move your stuff over the phone. A salesperson from the moving company will walk through your home, making note of large furniture, breakable items like china and how much furniture needs to be broken down for moving purposes. Don't forget to show them the attic, garage and basement where many items get stored. Moving companies kept telling me that my attic would be the most expensive piece of the move because of how much stuff we have stored there.

Tip #4: If you're working with a local realtor, ask if they have any discounts or coupons with moving companies. My realtor was able to get me a 10 percent discount with a large local moving company.

Tip #5: Pack your own stuff, especially if your moving date is a few weeks down the road. Having a moving company pack your items will double the price of the move. Even tackling a few boxes every weekend is worth saving the money. I've even heard of people having packing parties where they get a few friends together for food and drinks and some packing.

Tip #6: Most moving companies will offer a few options for insurance to cover items that are broken, damaged or lost. You pay a certain amount, usually $4 to $9 for every $1,000 of your items' value. Movers aren't perfect so insurance is probably a good way to go. But check with your own insurance policies to see if you already have coverage for moving damages. If not, choose an insurance plan based on the type of items the company will be moving. If you have lots of sentimental antiques, more coverage may be the best way to go.

Tip #7: Don't plan your move for a holiday weekend like Memorial Day or Labor Day. The rates go up on three-day holiday weekends, especially those that fall at the end of the month.

Tip #8: Once you get a few estimates, figure out who your favorite is and ask if they can tweak their estimate to compete with the others. All the moving companies I spoke to said they would consider bringing down the price if the other lower estimates were from companies that were about the same size and caliber as their company.

So what are your tips for hiring a moving company? Who are some of the better moving companies out there?

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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 04/ 9/2009

Hop, Hop, Hop to Ready-Made Easter Meals

The Easter eggs are hidden. The pastel décor is in place. The chocolate eggs and jelly beans are ready to be eaten. Just one more thing -- Easter dinner. If the holiday has snuck up on you and you're in search of a little help from someone else's kitchen, consider buying some ready-made Easter fare. Here are a few local ideas:

Just about every major grocery store will sell you a complete holiday dinner for eight to 10 people. Wegmans' Easter package includes a European cheese assortment appetizer for $25, a spiral-sliced ham for $5.99 a pound and four side dishes including spring asparagus, a medley of zucchini, squash, red peppers, carrots and green beans and scalloped potatoes for $29.99.

A more economical route would be to make your own sides and explore some of the meats stores like Safeway and Giant are offering. Safeway is also selling hams for $1.49 for a spiral-sliced ham and 79 cents a pound for a shank half or whole ham. If ham isn't your thing, Safeway also has a beef ribeye roast for $4.99 or fresh turkeys for $1.29 a pound. Giant has a semi-boneless beef rib roast for $4.99 a pound, a spiral-sliced ham for $1.39 and a semi-boneless rib steak for $5.99 a pound. A leg of lamb is $2.99 a pound and fresh turkeys are going for 99 cents a pound.

SendAMeal.com will deliver a four-person Easter dinner to your doorstep. The site offers a classic Sunday pot roast and a side of mixed vegetables for $34.95, a boneless 2-pound turkey or a boneless 2-pound ham with a roasted vegetable medley, a green bean casserole and whipped sweet potatoes for $89.95. The meals come in an insulated cooler packed with dry ice, so the food arrives frozen. Now here's the bad news. You'll have to pay about $30 to have it shipped by Easter Sunday if you order it today.

Or you could do what I do and graciously accept your mother-in-law's invitation for Easter dinner at her house. Offer to bring a dessert and get ideas from our own Food section.

So what will you prepare for Easter dinner? Who has the best deals on ready-meal meals? What has been your experience getting prepared holiday dinners from grocery stores?

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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 04/ 7/2009

Tuesday Tips: Buying Paint

One of the most expensive supplies in a painting project is the paint. It's hard to believe, since it's just paint, but paint a room with cheap stuff and it shows. High-end paint can run you $100 a gallon. So here are a few tips on buying paint without taking out a second mortgage on your home:

Tip #1: If you're painting to sell a house, consider using a lower grade paint in a neutral color and a flat finish. A new owner will likely paint the room their own color anyway and you haven't spent a ton of money to make your house look nice while it's on the market. "You're not going to get a lot of wear in the time from when you paint it to when you sell it," said Bill Thornton, owner of Potomac Paint, a paint store in Alexandria, Arlington and Chantilly.

Tip #2: Think about the space that you're painting. It will dictate what kind of grade of paint you buy. Builders grade, which is the lowest, may not withstand cleaning products that you use to clean the walls. Higher grades, such as contractor grade, will withstand ammonia-based cleaners, as well as magic markers and other stains.

Tip #3: Before you head to the paint store, look online for coupons and sales. Brands that are sold in boutique paint stores like Benjamin Moore and Duron often have discounts at certain times of the year, as well as online, printable coupons.

Tip #4: Ask for a discount if you're painting the entire house. Some stores will cut some of the price if you're buying several gallons of paint. It also never hurts to ask for a discount if it's a house you're trying to sell before a potential foreclosure. "We try to work with people and if they tell us that they're pinching pennies for whatever reason, we try to be a good neighbor," Thornton said.

Tip #5: If you're using a contractor to do your painting, ask if they have discounts at any paint stores. Many contractors have relationships with paint stores that give them small discounts for exclusively buying their paint.

Tip #6: Think about how much you want to paint. A higher quality paint might often mean you're rolling on fewer coats of paint, which means less expense in the end.

Tip #7: Don't buy the most expensive paint supplies, such as brushes and rollers, if you're just doing one small project. And use less expensive plastic drop cloths rather than canvas ones. Old shower curtains work great as well. And if you don't need a whole gallon of paint, buy two quarts instead. "Two quarts costs less than a gallon," Thornton says.

What are your tips for buying paint on a budget? Who has the best deals?

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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 04/ 2/2009

Cool Store Alert: West Elm

Every spring I try to turn my small patio into a relaxing, beach setting. I use colors and lots of candles and lights to make it happen... sort of. It never quite works out the way I want it to. Which is why the recent West Elm catalog caught my eye.

The Brooklyn-based furniture company, launched by Williams-Sonoma in 2002, features sleek modern wood pieces with neutral colors. Much of it is loungy, with cushy sofas and inviting outdoor reclining chairs. The pieces are created to appeal to people living in apartments or lofts, says a company spokeswoman. But the furniture has also been a draw to designers across the board.

But what really attracted my eye were the prices. The catalog is having a 10 percent off sale on its outdoor pieces. So you can get a two-person lounger made of nyatoh wood in a white or chocolate weather-treated stain, along with poly canvas, poly foam cushions for $680. The sale also includes outdoor pillows for $7, a wood-slat outdoor dining table with four chairs for $809, a beanbag coffee table for $161 and a teak lounger for $404.

Some of its other furniture, including sofas, desks, beds and dining sets, are reasonably priced as well. You can find desks for $400, a 5-piece sectional sofa for $2,600, room divider bookcases for $600 and 9 x 12-foot jute rugs for $300.

The company has its own in-house designers, many of whom are artists and design professors in their free time, who create a majority of the products. The company is working on a "green" collection, which includes certified organic cotton bedding and bath sets, recycled glass tumblers and carafes and a tree stump side table made from reclaimed acacia tress. The collection also includes Fair Trade Khadi textiles, supported by Aid to Artisans + Craftmark, and hand-loomed by members of a rural women's yarn cooperative in India.

The catalog has several stores throughout the country, including Tysons Corner and Northwest Washington. The Washington store, which is housed in the former Woodies department store on G Street, is the company's largest store and opened in 2007. The company has sales throughout the year. In addition to its 10 percent outdoor furniture sale, the West Elm credit card is offering no interest and no payments for a year if you spend at least $1,000.

Have you shopped West Elm? Do you find the prices reasonable? Does the furniture hold up well? Where else have you found good deals on furniture these days?

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Posted at 07:44 AM ET, 03/31/2009

Beating Retailers at Their Own Game

You walk into a store, browse the shelves, pick what you want and pay for it. Shopping seems simple enough, right? But retailers have tricks up their sleeves to make us buy certain things that we consumers don't even know about. That's according to Martin Lindstrom, author of "Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy." The book is based on several years of research and Lindstrom's background as a marketing and advertising advisor to the retail world. I asked him to give Shop To It some tips on how we should shop. Here's what he had to say:

Tip #1: Leave the kids at home when you shop. Retailers will gear more and more of their advertising toward parents with children. Why? Because kids influence 80 percent of their parents' buying habits, say Lindstrom. It's not just candy and toys either. Lindstrom says kids have the power to influence which cars and houses we buy. "We do know today if you bring your kid with you into a retailer, you are likely to buy up to 30 percent more," Lindstrom added. "It's worth it for the retailers but not for the consumer."

Tip #2: Rediscover the forgotten art of shopping lists. Lindstrom says consumers have stopped making lists of the things they need to buy before they leave the house. He says we must get back to making lists and actually sticking to them. You can even give yourself a rule to buy one extra thing off the list but otherwise, stick with it. And while you're at it, buy the cheapest of the categories you've put on the list. "Sticking to a list and buying the cheapest of those categoies will result in 35 to 45 percent in savings," he says.

Tip #3: Don't fall for free, exclusive offers. Lindstrom says retailers, especially those with high-end brands, will increasingly start offering limited edition, free gifts with a certain purchase. We've seen this for years with department store make-up offers but those types of offers will spill into other categories. "Retailers are going to throw in free stuff instead of discounting the brand," he says. A good consumer will ask themselves if they really need the item and its free gift before they buy it.

Tip #4: Don't let retailers scare you. They will increasingly use fear to get you buy their stuff, Lindstrom says. Everything from pharmaceuticals to toothpaste will be advertised as saving your life, playing on fears that tend to be more heightened during a recession. "As long as you're aware of it, you're not that vulnerable," he says.

Tip #5: Make a calculator your best friend, especially when you go to the grocery store. This will help consumers keep track of what they're buying between the time they enter the grocery store and the hour or so later when they leave. Grocery shopping is one of the few shopping excursions where you could easily throw more than 100 items into your cart. Having a calculator keep track of how much you're spending will save you from any surprises at the checkout line.

Tip #6: Change your weekly shopping habits. Try going to a different grocery store or walk the aisles in your current grocery store in a different order. Lindstrom says the change will force consumers to pay closer attention to potentially cheaper brands. "When you walk down the same supermarket aisles, it's a routine. You're not going to question the price," he says. "But if you change your path through the supermarket, you're waking up and starting to evaluate the value of everything you put in your cart."

So how have you beaten retailers at their game? What kinds of retail tricks have you discovered while shopping?

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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 03/26/2009

Emptying the Electronics Graveyard

An electronics graveyard. We all have one in our houses. Mine is deep in the bowels of my basement in a backroom closet. You open up the door and out comes cell phones, laptops, a VHS player and dozens of cords and adaptors. I could sell them on eBay, but the process can be a tad time consuming. Salvation Army won't take outdated laptops and you can't just throw them in the trash.

Gazelle.com may be the solution. This two-year-old Web site buys old electronics and sells them to other retailers and wholesalers in return for an Amazon.com gift card, a check or a payment through Paypal. You could also choose to have the money go to charity. The company says they pay users an average of $115. Any device that's deemed to have no value gets recycled by the company, which is about 10 percent of items that get sent in.

So here's how it works: You plug in all the basic information about the device and out spits a price of what the Web site is willing to pay you. You ship it to them with postage and packaging paid by Gazelle and never have to see it again. The company takes great care to wipe out all your personal information from the device before it gets sold to places like eBay and Amazon.com. The company says many cell phones get sold overseas.

Apple products tend to get the most returns and the newer the product, the more you'll get for it, says a company spokeswoman. I recently plugged in the stats on an ancient Toshiba laptop of mine and understandably it was worthless in Gazelle's eyes. I could still send it in so they could recycle it but I would have to pay for the shipping and packaging. They also sent me a list of local places to have it recycled. Then I plugged in info on my five-year-old Dell Inspirion laptop and they offered $81. Not bad for a piece of clutter in my closet.

The company's goal is to get consumers to think of their electronics the same way they think of cars. You trade them in or sell them to other people rather than just leaving them on the side of the road. Yet we stuff closets and drawers with old cell phones and laptops that have been replaced by newer and better ones.

"The way that we own cars is highly efficient versus electronics," says Kristina Kennedy, senior manager of branding and communications for Gazelle. "There's no way to trade in a laptop. We're trying to change that whole consumption cycle of electronics."

So have you ever used Gazelle? What have you been doing with your old electronics?

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