Step two: Low price; high value
Topics covered: Resale stores, customer to customer buying/selling, store sales, lucky pack overview, Japanese auction sites.
There are three main options when shopping for lolita clothing (although this applies to many other Japanese collectibles or limited releases), Japanese auction sites, Japanese stores (physical and online) and resale sites (ie EGL Sales Comm, Closet Child, etc).
We'll start with resale sites since they are probably the easiest to access and understand.
Like shopping services, resales can be done on a personal or a business level. Resale stores like Closet Child will buy brand name goods from various sources (though for lolita, it's usually individuals) at a low price, mark it up and resell to their customers. Others will work on a consignment basis where the items are not bought by the store, but rather loaned to the store and when the item sells, the store will pay out part of the proceeds to the owner and keep the remainder as a commission. In either case, there is a mark up of prices so the middleman (the store) has somewhere to take their cut from. Even eBay can be considered a resale middleman, but instead of marking up the price, they take their cut directly from the final cost of the item and it is up to the individual seller to determine if they will mark up the price to cover eBay fees, or if they will just have it come out of the final sum. In any case, the middleman always takes their cut.
When you turn to direct customer to customer (C2C) resale sites like EGL Sales Comm on Livejournal, Lolita Sales in English on Facebook or any of the plethora of fee-free sales communities and forums, the middleman is left out so the price that the buyer pays, is the amount the seller receives. This can often mean lower prices since sellers do not need to mark up to account for middleman fees, although with the popularity of Paypal, a slight mark up may still be necessary (although a 3-4% mark up for paypal fees is much better than the 20%+ mark ups at resale and consignment shops).
C2C resale sites are also welcome to many because they come in many languages, and even ones for specific geographical regions can be found. Buying from those in the same area can often result in significant savings on shipping and reduce (if buying from nearby countries) or eliminate (if buying domestically) risk of duty and taxes imposed by customs.
Without store standards and policies to regulate prices, C2C resale sites tend to have prices that vary wildly. This is where patience and research will come in. Most forums and many websites have built in search options that can be used to look up specific items. This is best used when you are looking to purchase specific items (ie. specific prints). Look up what that items has been posted at and sold for in the past to get a general idea of the resale market value.
For those who like to buy directly from the brand sites, many ship overseas now and even have site mirrors in English. The shopping cart and check out system on many sites are still in Japanese; however, those sites usually will have an English guide on how to use the check out system and translations for what the terms seen there mean or what should be entered in each field for non-Japanese customers.
Japan's sale seasons are typically in late summer (around August) and at the very end of the year (late December and early January). During these times, many brands will have sales on items from the past season with discounts of up to 70% off. If you are planning to buy a specific piece and would like it's condition to be guaranteed pristine, this is the best opportunity to get some savings. After the sale season, many old items will be removed from the webstore.
Another popular trend during the sales season are lucky packs (LP). These grab bag style bundles were intended to clear out old stock at steep discounts usually ranging between 33% down to 20% of the combined original tag prices of the contents. Traditionally, LPs are comprised of left over stock from the previous season; however, due to their popularity, many lolita brands will now create items specifically intended for LPs (such as Angelic Pretty) or use leftover fabric from regular releases to make items for LPs (such as Metamorphose).
Lucky pack announcements on brand websites often come along side sample images. These images usually reflect potential contents of a lucky pack; however, remember that contents are never guaranteed to match the sample images and you can potentially receive a pack that contain entirely different items. Read the details of the announcement or sale page carefully as they usually provide hints of what packs may contain (ie. while specific prints are never guaranteed, Metamorphose tends to release skirt lucky packs twice a year announced as containing a skirt, a blouse, a pair of bloomers and a small accessory).
LPs that fully announce the contents are rare, but for those who are extremely picky and do not want to risk receiving items they don't like in a completely blind luck-of-the-draw LP, these are the perfect opportunity for a cheap buy.
If you are considering buying an LP for the first time, it's usually a good idea to check what people have paid for shipping or other recent LP releases from the same brand. International shipping by EMS can be pricy and duty fees from customs can be a concern since LPs are often pricy despite being good value.
Lastly, for the ultimate savings, but requiring probably the most patience and effort, Japanese auction sites (such as Yahoo! Japan and MBok) are an excellent source of cheap, secondhand items.
This method is best saved for those with good self-control and good planning abilities since there are a multitude of fees, payments and schedules to track.
The best tactic for successful wardrobe building using Japanese auction sites is to bid low, but bid frequently.
It's unlikely that you will win most auctions that you bid on, but even at a low rate of success, bidding on many auctions will still result in a significant number of successful bids. With this in mind, it is important to keep a keen eye on your budget and try to keep an up to date sum of the estimated final cost available to prevent overspending.
It is also important to not be caught up in the moment and bid on impulse. If the item is not something you are likely to wear, don't bid, because unless the goal is to re-sell at a future point in time at a marked up price for the sake of profit, it is usually a waste of time and money.
Before going onto an auction site to browse listings, it's usually smart to look at your current wardrobe and decide what type of items you are missing or would like to buy. Then you can shop with these in mind to avoid being distracted by auctions containing items you don't need. If you are like me and like to drabble in several different styles (within lolita or completely unrelated styles) instead of having a very focused wardrobe, it's a good idea to set aside a portion of your budget so you can justify getting some miscellaneous items to test out a new style or even to add to your non-lolita wardrobe.
Sellers on Japanese auction sites will rarely ship overseas, so most people will require a shopping service to act as a middleman. Using a shopping service is an expensive, but more often than not unavoidable additional cost to bidding on Japanese auction sites. You can read more about the process of selecting a shopping service and the additional fees that may incur in this post.
In general, when buying items to build a wardrobe, the trends tend to be that buying from Japanese auction sites will often be more affordable, but require a longer wait time and often take a fair amount of planning to ensure that the great deal will still be great after fees and shipping have been added. On the other hand, if you're not confident about picking a good shopping service and feel uncomfortable buying in a foreign language, the English resale sites and English mirrors of brand webstores are good resources.
The method that each buyer should use really depends on the amount of
effort you're willing to put into obtaining the item(s) you want as
well as the limits of your self-control to not buy more than you can
afford. Start out with what you're most comfortable with and slowly expand your resources. Jumping in too deep, too fast can be much worse than taking your time wading in.
To loosely paraphrase the Ontario Lottery's motto, "know your limits, shop within them". Always keep this in mind because a good deal will quickly go sour if you land yourself in debt by overspending.