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Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Secret To Scoring Online Sample Sales

Yes there is a bit of strategy involved...

If you're new to the whole world of online sample sales you might have already come away feeling a bit vexed and vanquished. The new, yet largely unknown, shopping craze is taking on previous score sites such as ebay and Overstock.com but many are finding it has its own set of rules.

First, for those who are completely new to this secret underworld and in need of a little 411, online sample sales bring the experience many major city women brave and fight for to the virtual world. Now no matter where you live you can have a chance at scoring an authenticated luxury piece at deep discounts (we're talking up to 90%) at destinations with names like, Beyond The Rack, gilt [see an inside look video here about gilt] and Haute Look. The catch is that many require an invitation from someone already on the inside and a bit of anonymity so that designers feel their brand isn't being undermined. If you're like many you might not know anyone who can invite you and requesting to be put on a waiting list usually gives you zero access. To remedy this here is a compilation list of invitation codes along with reviews of the best sites I've vetted so you can join in on the experience right now. [In need of an invitation? Click here for ours and start shopping now.]

The best part about these sites, which I believe has a lot to do with our current economic situation, is that the items being offered for purchase are in most cases perfectly giftable. Gone are the defaced or cut tags, missing parts or overly trendy and now outdated designs from 5 years ago. Instead you might be shocked to find classic handbags from the current season or imported dinnerware from a boutique. The sort of deals that caused pushing and shoving now has moved online but it can still be tough and there are still ropes to learn so you don't end up getting shut out of a major steal:

1) Get familiar with the website after you join but before you shop. After you've signed up for your choice of websites and activated your account, take the time to browse around and learn how the website works. Unlike ebay items are not bid on, instead a sale will go live for a certain number of hours or until items fully sell out. Shoppers quickly add items to their online shopping carts and pay within 10 to 15 minutes less another buyer has the chance to grab the deal.

Be sure to look at each sites return policy and how much shipping might be. Take the time to pre-fill in your shipping and billing information so you do not have to do this while checking out. Also see how long you're allowed to hold an item in your shopping cart. The timer placed on your checkout experience can cause those who are new to these sorts of websites to become flustered and a deal to slip through your fingers.

2) Make sure their emails are making it into your inbox. This is extremely important. Make sure you've activated your account by clicking on any activation emails they send you and that you add their email address to your address book. In many cases these sites will email you just before a sale will go live. It's important to look for these alerts as not all of these sites give information about upcoming sales.

3) Do a little research or a lot. If possible prior to the sale (if they give you information about upcoming sales) look around the web and local retailers for the designers mentioned. Some of the items can have unfamiliar names but are cult favorites among those in the know. They can be created by a designer known for impeccable craftsmanship or it can be liquidation from a company going out of business... in the case of the latter know that the items value may be seriously undermined and base your deal meter accordingly. Read Daily Candy and TONY's sample sale listings to see the percentage off at brick and motor events.

If you're already browsing a live sale have another window open so that you can compare prices on Amazon.com, ebay, etc., to see what the going prices are on each particular item. Also watch out for inaccurate (as in inflated) retail prices which can create the appearance of a larger discount. Once you factor in shipping the deal may really be more like retail or a small department store discount. In such cases it might be a better idea to pass. The main thing is not to get so caught up in the deal process that you regret it later.

4) Mark your calender and set your alarm. Look at where the site is located, is the start time EST? Coming in late to a sample sale and seeing everything already sold out can be incredibly disheartening (although there is some comfort to be hard, see #7 below) and the emails sent by these websites might not get to your inbox as soon as the sales open so be vigilant and try to log in prior to the start time. When a rush of people come flooding in the login area of the site can become bogged down. Try to get inside beforehand and keep refreshing until the offerings go live. See the online collective sale calender of events at SampleSaleCrush.com.

5) Add items to your cart and browse later. Quickly scan the items offered and then add what you're really most interested in to your cart on face value. Then look at the specks and if the item is not to your liking immediately remove it from your cart so someone else can snag it.

6) Why it pays to come back. Sometimes people give up too quickly. Everything in a sale can look like it's sold out or is already in another persons cart but the truth is once the first flood is over and people decide not to buy anything the landscape can look totally different. A persons credit card can be declined or for what ever reason they never complete the checkout process. Come back in 15 or even 30 minutes and see if any of those buttons have changed back to "Buy Now". You might be surprised at how much is actually left over.

7) If you miss out on a score it will probably pop up someplace else soon. Part of the fun of sample sale sites is knowing that your really scored something incredible and that means limited numbers for sale. In some cases that can mean only one. The whole idea of luxury was exclusivity or the perception of it in the first place. Once its gone, its gone... or is it!? One of the perks of signing up for multiple online sample sale sites is you will often see the same designers spread over a few of these sites. If you miss one or find it fully sold out keep your eyes open because the item might show on another site soon.

8) Shop with friends. Shopping with a circle of friends can be beneficial for a number of reasons. First, many of these sites will charge a flat fee for all of your purchases if they are made together &/or within an hour of one another. This can seriously cut down on shipping and handling costs. Second, most of these sites offer incentives to get your friends to join and shop. This can range from $5 to $25. If you refer each other and shop for the first time, the credit can be used as a discount and you all can split it between yourselves.

9) Know the differences in these sites from regular online retail. If you're looking to purchase something to give as a gift right away be careful and read shipping times thoroughly. Many of these websites can take anywhere from a few days to one, two or three weeks to actually ship your item and projections can be iffy. It can all depend on the actual item or designer being offered as some of these sites act as a middle man and shipping is done by someone else. Thinking and projecting in terms of "Business Days" can also be helpful... i.e. 14 business days can = 19 days altogether with weekends removed.

10) Keep up with industry calenders. Just like with regular sample sales there are ebbs and flows depending on the season. Around any fashion week you'll see a glut of events as designers dump stock that was never ordered by retailers or samples that were used in shows and campaigns which are no longer needed. Certain times can become lean so try to plan your shopping around the traditional sales (Spring = around May and Fall = around October).

Bonus Tip: Keep a NYC sample sale sort of mindset when shopping these sites and things can go much easier. By this I mean take returns out of the equation. As mentioned above your shipment can take weeks to arrive so if the item is to be a gift try to shop 1 or 2 months in advance instead of a couple of weeks, only to miss the due date and feel the need to now return the unneeded gift. Otherwise look for gifts that could be given to various people, such as hostess, housewarming, etc., and store them for just the right moment. Many of these sites do not handle returns well, only give store credit or do not take them at all. The same MO as most brick and mortar sample sales in the city. Shopping for keeps has been my best mantra with anything too iffy being passed over.

Update: Do your research... There have been mummers simmering for a while that some of the stock offered for sale is not sample sale fare but instead products created by labels specifically to meet the demand of these quickly growing websites. This practice hearkens back to cries of fowl play by avid outlet shoppers and articles in the late 90's pointing out that such designers as Calvin Klein were creating pieces which used cheaper quality fabrics and embellishments such as buttons. The outlet discount was seen as being not from liquidation but from cheaper construction. This has mostly been phased out by the more up front "capsule" collections which have popped up over the years at popular haunts such as H&M, Target and Topshop. With these collections people understand part of the accessibility comes from cheaper fabrication.

Unfortunately labels still seem to carry weight and the outlet practice of yore looks to be coming back in the form of online sample sales. Gilt's
CEO, Susan Lyne recently noted in BusinessWeek that authentic sample sale pieces are becoming depleted, "But increasingly we're saying we're going to need x million dollars of product from this brand in six months. How do we get there? In some cases, it could be a mini-collection or a proprietary line for Gilt.".

In some cases this has been highly welcome such as with Gilt's exclusive work with charity collections such as Versace's Art Unite tote bags and NYC's Fashion Night Out promotion and samplings of new collections at major steals. What may concern is the creation of pieces specifically for sale on sample sale sites which are not labeled as exclusive capsule collections but instead passed off as remnants of a legitimate lines main collection and which may incorporate inferior fabrics or construction. (for more on this read Gilt CEO's "clarification" at their blog which includes that statement that sometimes they ask designers to cut pieces "from another fabric"). With this in mind, being educated about what you are buying is a must going forward (and really always has been). Do research, keep images from magazines, catalogs and online stores. Snap pictures with your cell phone when shopping brick & mortar. I personally will be making sure the item I'm interested in buying can be located elsewhere in the form specifically being offered at these sites or is something I have experienced in person.

Also Read:
- Online Sample Sale Invitation Codes & Reviews
- A Calender of Sample & Flash Sale Events All In One Place Daily
- The Top Secret Invitation Code: We Have It
- The Best Secret Sample Sale Sites for Men

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