Two months ago, I purchased two exquisite Oscar de la Renta dresses for a third of their respective original prices at the brand’s sample sale in New York City. In the process, I lost my favorite bra.
While mercilessly searching for that treasured Gap undergarment, I bumped into three soon-to-be-brides who happened to be walking around the small space (overcrowded with both hideously ugly and awards-show worthy gowns) while holding their own future wedding dresses. Their gowns were also heavily discounted, compared to their cost if purchased at a brick-and-mortar Oscar de la Renta store (or Saks, or Bergdorf Goodman, or just about any other shop that offers customers full length mirrors and all the time and space they might need while in a fitting room).
Given the outing’s goal—either to save a boatload of money on something you definitely need, or to spend not-as-much on something you definitely don’t—and our collective success that day, I began to think: Did Mr. de la Renta price his offerings knowing they’d likely be purchased on sale? Does anybody buy anything at full cost anymore? Are sample sales even deals, or are they masked over-priced affairs? Most importantly: Are the psychological and financial implications (and the loss of my precious bra) of attending a sample sale even worth the effort?
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“It really depends on what type of shopper you are,” says Laura DiGiovanna, the marketing director at 260 Sample Sale, a third party company that provides brands with the space, security, maintenance, marketing and overall organization needed to set up a sample sale, when asked if sample sales are ultimately more rewarding than traditional shopping experiences. “You have to weigh the pros and cons: For the shoppers that want that love and attention, that catering, we do that to the best of our abilities […] but there are like 700, 800 people down there.”
Home to between 10 to 20 recorded sample sales on an average month, New York is the undisputed capital of buying high-end fashion pieces on a budget. This city-specific quality has a dual source: On the one hand, New Yorkers love the thrill of the hunt and the score of a deal (who doesn’t enjoy winning?).
Simultaneously, the city “was [always] the epicenter of where [dress] samples would pile up and need to be liquidated,” explains Assaf Azani, vice president of 260 Sample Sale. Logistically speaking, the various “leftover” pieces are already in the city—why not try and make a last-minute profit off at least some of them?
“Sample sales have changed so much over the years,” says an experienced sample sale associate who leads two major sales each yea. She’s agreed to speak on condition of anonymity given her extensive contacts in the retail industry. “I remember when […] it was a true ‘sample’ sale. Meaning: A rack of samples and damaged items with markings that could definitely not be sold in a store.”
Given the success of the sales, the events began shifting in quality in order to attract an even greater variety of customers that could potentially liquidate an even bigger roster of pieces that would likely not be purchased otherwise. As brands began recognizing a buyer’s greater psychological disposition to purchase an item when confronted with the word “sale”—especially in a do-or-die situation—the sample sale shifted in nature.
“I think all brands mark up their prices with the intention of putting it on sale,” says the associate. “I think now these brands are taking advantage and sell one rack of samples at true sample prices and the rest is just leftover stock at department store prices or online sale price. [You go to the sample sale and see] brand new merchandise in plastic and on hangers as if in a stockroom of a department store.” The sample sale is still a sale, but not just of samples.
“No, not at all,” says Steven Dann, owner of two eponymous high-luxury boutiques on Long Island, when asked whether he believes that brands whose products he sells price their items knowing that they will eventually be sold at a discount during a sale. He also runs sample sales at the end of each season, trying to organize them when “there are only one of each item left,” clearly preserving the aura of exclusivity that has always defined high-end (and high-price) products.
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“We always try to get the most competitive pricing,” says Azani while discussing the process involved in pricing each piece. “In fact, when most clients come with a very aggressive price, we’re not ones to dissuade them. If anything, those are the sales that are the most memorable, those are the sales that people go back to the office with two huge shopping bags and start talking to their co-workers about what they found for $25.”
Yet, unsurprisingly, the steepness of the sale price doesn’t deter shoppers from asking for even more discounts. DiGiovanna mentions quite a bit of haggling during the events, “but we have a strict policy: The price that our client sets is the price we sell it for.” All leftover merchandise is eventually returned to the client on the final day of the sale.