Free lunch, and other things retailers give away

Sep. 13, 2012 at 7:16 AM ET

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J. C. Penney is now offering free haircuts for kids to lure parents into its stores.

J.C. Penney made headlines this month by announcing it would offer free kids’ haircuts every Sunday, extending what had been planned as a one-month promotion. This was undoubtedly welcome news to many families struggling to balance their budgets. Of course, J.C. Penney isn’t the first merchant to offer complimentary services in the hopes of bringing more traffic through the door. Savvy shoppers know that many stores offer free products, services and special events. Here are some of our favorites.

Personal shopper. Live like a movie star and enlist the (free) services of a personal shopper to help you look your best. A surprising number of stores offer complimentary personal shopping services — just book an appointment, which you can often do online. Nordstrom, Anthropologie and Macy’s all offer this service to customers. Personal shoppers at J. Crew will even keep the store open late or open early if you’re in a real time crunch.

Interior decorator. A lot of furniture stores, including Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel and Ethan Allen, offer complimentary design services. You need to book your appointment ahead of time, but who wouldn’t appreciate a little free help decorating their house? Most of the stores recommend that you come to your appointment prepared — bring photos of the room you’re looking to furnish, measurements, swatches and pictures of styles you like to help make the most of the experience.

Free workshops and classes. Ready to learn a new skill but not ready to shell out money for an expensive class? Many stores offer free classes and workshops. Want to chop veggies like an Iron Chef? Sign up for a free technique workshop at Williams-Sonoma. Want to know how to host a spooky Halloween party or pick up some decorating tips? Mosey over to Pottery Barn for one of their free classes. DIY’ers can drill into a number of free home improvement workshops at The Home Depot or even get a complimentary kitchen design at Lowe’s. Crafty types can get free product demos and tips at Jo-Ann Fabrics.

Keeping the kids happy.  It might be easier if we just mentioned the stores that didn’t offer special programs for kids. But here’s a sampling of some of what’s out there. You can sign your budding carpenter up for free kids classes at both Lowe’s and Home Depot. Michael’s craft stores also offer free classes for the kids. Babies “R” Us, Toys “R” Us and Disney Stores routinely have special events for kids; just check their websites to find out what’s coming up. If you and your little one ever find yourselves near a Pottery Barn Kids on a Tuesday morning, drop in for story time at 11 a.m. The stores also host a number of other events, like superhero cape-making workshops and Halloween fashion shows. Lego stores offer a “Mini Model Build” once a month for kids ages 6–14. Not only do kids get to build a mini creation in the store, but they also get to take those Legos home with them. For free. Lakeshore Learning offers free crafts events for kids every Saturday.

You say it’s your birthday. Nearly every chain restaurant out there has some sort of birthday club you can join. Sign up ahead of time and then dine out on your big day — you’ll be a cheap date for your friends and family. Johnny Rockets (which also offers discounts on movie tickets any day of the year) will give you a free hamburger for your birthday when you sign up for their emails, and Baskin-Robbins will give you free ice cream on your big day. Some offer a free entrée, others offer a free dessert, but almost everyone will give you something for having survived another year.

Free baby-sitting. Baby-sitting is expensive. That is, unless you shop at IKEA. The Swedish furniture giant offers a supervised play area and ball pit for the kids. Some other stores and businesses are also offering free child care in the hope it will free up Mom and Dad so they can spend more. Fred Meyer stores, a member of the Kroger family in the West, offers supervised child care while parents shop. Life Time Fitness, a nearly national chain of gyms, offers members two hours of free child care every day. Rock climbing and swimming lessons for the kiddos are part of the package.

Free health screening. Sam’s Club members can get a free health screening every month. This month, they’re offering a diabetes screening, and in October the company promises to offer women’s health screenings.

Recycle. Freecycle. Best Buy stores offer free electronics recycling. Check their website to see what components they’ll accept in your state. Many Starbucks locations offer “Grounds for Your Garden.” They’re yours for the taking, but supplies can be hit or miss.

Car talk. AutoZone will test many of your car’s components, such as batteries, alternators and starters, for free. They’ll also charge up your battery for you, if needed.

There is such a thing as a free lunch. Costco offers free lunch every weekend. Of course, if you ask them, they’ll just call it “samples.”

Casinos. Casinos are the kings of comps. Free drinks, complimentary meals, hotel rooms and free shuttle service. Chances are, if you gamble enough, everything else is on the house.

What are some of your favorite freebies and complimentary services?

Dana Macario is a Seattle-area writer who would love to try out a personal shopper.