With more boutiques opening every year and the city’s increasing awareness and support of the local design scene, Chicago’s style IQ is higher than ever. While that can translate into higher prices, savvy shoppers can always find a bargain. Here are some tips for working the retail system.

This will be a season of big change on the department store landscape. The locally founded chain Marshall Field’s, whose flagship store (111 N. State, 312-781-1000) dated back almost to the city’s founding, has just been absorbed by Federated Department Stores, whose Macy’s brand instantly evokes New York. However, the new owners are bending over backward to woo Chicagoans, promoting local designers and hosting several events in conjunction with Fashion Focus Chicago (which runs through this weekend). Meanwhile, the Loop location of Carson Pirie Scott (1 S. State, 312-641-7000)–long the dowdy sister of downtown department stores, despite its grand landmark building by visionary architect Louis Sullivan–is expected to close by March. For now, though, it’s a good bet for affordable name-brand men’s suits and inexpensive jewelry and handbags.

All the other department stores hold big regular sales throughout the year and usually have a few discounted racks going at any one time. Bloomingdale’s (900 N. Michigan, 312-440-4460) tends to attract a wide customer base, and Nordstrom (55 E. Grand, 312-464-1515) is a step up on the luxury scale. Saks (700 N. Michigan, 312-944-6500), Barneys (25 E. Oak, 312-587-1700), and Neiman Marcus (aka Needless Markup; 737 N. Michigan, 312-642-5900) are the top of the heap, but if you stop in at the right moment you might be able to score a heavy discount on that top that caught your eye in Vogue last season. If you do go to Neiman’s, bring a wad of cash–they take AmEx and their own store card but not the dirty likes of Visa or Mastercard. For real fire-sale prices, head to Filene’s Basement (1 N. State, 312-553-1055) and Nordstrom Rack (24 N. State, 312-377-5500)–but you’ll have to sift through a lot of ill-conceived dreck to find a genuine good deal.

If you can’t wait for prices to come down on the real thing, there’s H&M (840 N. Michigan, 312-640-0060, and 22 N. State, 312-263-4436) and Forever 21 (28 S. State, 312-977-2121, 540 N. Michigan, 312-595-0489, and 845 N. Michigan, 312-867-0220), both of which carry designer knockoffs at low, low prices. And Mango, Spain’s answer to the Swedish H&M chain, is supposed to open in Water Tower Place (845 N. Michigan) next month.

If you want your selection more closely curated, lately Chicago has no shortage of high-end boutiques–and they all mark stuff down sometime. The trick is knowing when. Krista K (3458 N. Southport, 773-248-1967) holds an “around the clock” sale every January and July, opening its doors at 8 AM and offering discounts up to 50 percent for the first hour; that percentage decreases incrementally thereafter until closing time. Its neighbor down the block, Red Head Boutique (3450 N. Southport, 773-325-9898), often holds a concurrent sale. Other stores with intimidating price tags, including Hejfina (1529 N. Milwaukee, 773-772-0002), Robin Richman (2108 N. Damen, 773-278-6150), Penelope’s (1913 W. Division, 773-395-2351), P.45 (1643 N. Damen, 773-862-4523), Blake (212 W. Chicago, 312-202-0047), and Ikram (873 N. Rush, 312-587-1000) offer occasional steep discounts, and you don’t need to be the owner’s best friend to find out about them ahead of time: these and many other boutiques have mailing lists, and Web sites like Style Chicago (stylechicago.com) and Fashionista (chicagofashionista.com) announce sales and other events like designer trunk shows and sample sales.

Long a staple for Manhattan shoppers, sample sales are a relatively recent phenomenon in Chicago. Originally a way for designers to unload actual sample pieces used to sell their collections to stores, here the sales usually feature multiple designers and are more likely to feature overstock, discounted anywhere from 40 to 90 percent–happy news for those of us larger than a size two. Beta Boutique (betaboutique.com, next sale 10/7-10/8), Billion Dollar Babes (billiondollarbabes.com, next sale 11/11), and Luxury Drop (luxurydrop.com; their sales charge a nominal admission fee) all hold events in different locations around the city. Be forewarned: dressing rooms are usually rudimentary and communal, and pushing and elbowing are just part of the deal.

If stuff that’s reasonably priced to begin with is your bag, there are plenty of good options. You’ll have to wade through racks of bohemian basics at Andersonville’s Presence (5216 N. Clark, 773-989-4420), but the reward is less-expensive versions of trends you don’t want to invest in too heavily. For jeans head down the street to Hip Fit (1513 W. Foster, 773-878-4447) for vintage and secondhand designer denim at significantly less than a couple hundred bucks a pair. The Mexican Shop (801 Dempster, Evanston, 847-475-8665) is worth the schlep for its extensive selection of ethnic-influenced jewelry and offbeat accessories. And Wicker Park’s Akira empire offers club-ready duds for men (1922 W. North, 773-276-5640) and women (1837 W. North, 773-489-0818, and 2347 N. Clark, 773-404-9826), plus shoes for both (1849 W. North, 773-342-8684, and 122 S. State, 312-346-3034).

Speaking of footwear: Lori’s Shoes (824 W. Armitage, 773-281-5655) has plenty of designer pairs around $100 and the back is a permanent sale rack. For more fashion-forward options, City Soles (2001 W. North, 773-489-2001), and 3432 N. Southport, 773-665-4233) periodically offers sale shoes for a nickel when you buy another pair at regular price.

Going secondhand is probably the number one way to save cash, but not everyone has the time or patience to comb the racks at Unique Thrift Store or Village Discount Outlet–two chains that still offer the occasional find amid tons of junk. Some reliable resale stores that have done the work for you (and don’t overcharge for it) can still be found on a stretch of Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park, including Una Mae’s Freak Boutique (1422 N. Milwaukee, 773-276-7002) and Lenny & Me (1463 N. Milwaukee, 773-489-5576). If your look is more right-now than eclectic, try Crossroads Trading Company (2711 N. Clark, 773-296-1000, and 1519 N. Milwaukee, 773-227-5300) or Plato’s Closet (2150 N. Clybourn, 773-549-2070), which feature secondhand clothes in current styles–and you can sell or trade them the stuff you’re already sick of.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrea Bauer.