The Sisterhood of the Sample Sale

As a girl growing up in Fargo, it’s hard not to feel like you’re missing out on something bigger. Every magazine, TV show, novel was based somewhere more glamorous. The parties worth seeing, the stores worth shopping, well they were always somewhere else. And more often than not, that somewhere else was New York City.

To the delight of 17 year old Lauren, I live in that city now, and finally stepping into those shops and cafes is another experience. Oftentimes a disappointment. I’ve realized that the whole appeal of the store was the simple fact that it was something out of reach. Most are just stores. Just cafes. With a New York address and a write-up in Vogue.

Which brings us to the New York thing I yearned for. Something that could be amazing but also terrifying, and something you find nowhere else.

The sample sale.

I hope you just gasped. (I did) The sample sale has surpassed my long-held expectations.

For the uninitiated, a quick lesson. The sample sale is more than the “end of the season” sale you see in store windows at the mall. It is an experience. Sales generally happen once a year, two times tops, and last for a day or two to a week at most. Most merchandise is 70-90% off, although there are other less-worthy sales that call themselves “sample sales” that aren’t sufficiently marked down. Similar to the supermodel that won’t get out of bed for less than $10,000; I won’t step into a sale with less than a 70% mark down. You shouldn’t either.

Sample sales are the way high-end labels shed the merchandise they don’t want to further mark down in their own stores, potentially damaging their brand. In fact, sample sales are very rarely run by the actual brand. There are specific companies that exist for the sole purpose to organize and run the sales. They purchase the leftover merchandise from the brand and then shoulder the burden of selling it off. For this reason, the people running the sale, to the location of the sale, to the name that will show up on your credit card statement after you’ve made a purchase, are not the brand.

But aren’t you terrorized by other women ripping clothing right out of your hands, you ask? No. Simply, no. And I really hate this portrayal of women ripping each other apart for a pair of pants. These stories remind me of the people that get trampled on Thanksgiving at 2 AM at Walmart. It’s rare, its played up by the media, and generally a rouge insane person is to blame for the ensuing chaos.

Despite this, I have encountered born and bred New Yorkers that are shocked by my enthusiasm for sample sales. Their brows furrow and their nose crunch up as they ask “Aren’t they crowded and awful?” So I’m here to say “No!” They are fantastic and lovely and you guys, I even happily anticipate to the sisterhood of a sample sale.

Let me explain. As I said, these sales are often not held in actual stores. They are usually a rented loft or storefront of some sort. This means there are rarely individual dressing rooms. In fact, I have never been to a sale that had individual dressing rooms. On Friday I went to a sale that was equal genders and I tried to discretely shimmy into tight skinny jeans in a corner by some coats. At first I tied a sweatshirt around my waist but quickly gave up, because, meh, nobody really cares. I have even been to a lingerie sample sale that had no changing area whatsoever. It was also very small room with few hidden corners. Thankfully, this sale only sold women’s lingerie, and only women were in attendance so what did we do? We gathered around two mirrors propped in the corner, peeled our shirts off and tried the damn bras on.

Does this freak you out? Because you guys, it warms my heart. I love the communal, non-judgmental feel of trying on the damn clothes and going home with something gorgeous. Usually, the “changing area” is a curtained corral with racks along the side and a wall of mirrors along the other. You hang up your stuff, set your purse on the ground, and get to work. This is also, and most importantly, your time to make fast friends with your fellow women of New York. I have swapped so much advice, gotten tips on what a tailor can and can’t fix, complimented scores of women, and been offered help zipping up difficult dresses. Yes, strangers have just asked “want me to get that for you?” as a I struggle with zip-dressing a tight, strapless dress.

Does this sound terrifying? Hardly.

This lack of modesty also means that you see New York women slink out of their work dresses revealing the spanx, the imperfections, the basic humanness about them. It’s not creepy, I promise. It’s reassuring. It’s a rare opportunity to see real women and you’re right there too, joining in on the sisterhood of the sample sale. Bonding over a deal. Is there anything more wonderful than that?

So yes, friends, I love these opportunities to build a better wardrobe than is normally within my reach. I also love the opportunity to ask other women “do you think this is too baggy, or its supposed to be like that?” Because there just aren’t enough opportunities to do that in our daily lives.

Are you intrigued? Want to get in on the fun? My Sample Sale Tips:

First you must visit http://ny.racked.com/sales  This website lists all the major sales for the month. Mark down which ones you’re interested and then check back the night before. The website’s editors are usually invited to the sale the day before, allowing them to post the layout of the sale as well as pictures with the item’s price. This is really helpful if you’re trying to ascertain if the sale is within your budget. There are sales where merchandise is around $500…which I can’t swing no matter what the markup was before. Don’t emotionally torture yourself or your credit card by still going to the sale. There are a many more sales that will fit your price range. Hold out.

If the brand is new to me, but I like what I see, I familiarize myself with the brand. I check out their website and click their “sale” tab. This will give you an idea of pricing (the sample sale should be further reduced though) as well as the type of merchandise they’ll be off-loading. Don’t like the style or direction of the brand? Then don’t waste your time at the sale.

If however, I do like what I see, I do an image search of the brand and even bookmark specific shoes, boots, coats, etc. to look out for at the sale. The Racked website and the photos from the actual sale is helpful for this too. Sales can be really overwhelming so having a clear direction of what you’re looking for is really helpful. Generally I look for more expensive items where craftsmanship and high end materials pay off. In my experience that means footwear, coats, and sweaters. Avoid t-shirts and other items that don’t require a high level of craftsmanship, as well as cheaper materials such as rayon or polyester. A sample sale is the time to focus on high-end materials you can’t normally afford. The deep markdowns mean I can score leather boots that were handcrafted in Italy, blouses made from silk rather than synthetic materials, or cashmere or wool sweaters. For instance, I recently purchased a winter coat, allowing me to get real wool with a thick, warm lining and leather details. That’s the kind of stuff that pays off at a higher price point, and the whole reason you’re at a sample sale in the first place. (The brand was Billy Reid, a designer I had never heard of, and it was without a doubt the best sample sale I had ever been to).

If its a brand you’re really excited about, go the first day for the best selection. However, if you’re vaguely interested but not frothing at the mouth about any particular pieces, go toward the end of the sale. Remember, this is a third party selling the clothes and they really don’t want to be stuck with the leftovers, so there are almost always further markdowns. This is the time to go and browse and try your luck with what’s left.

Sometimes if you’re walking down the street you’ll see a store with “sample sale!” in the window. This is rarely a sample sale. Please don’t go in there unless you’ve googled it. Usually sample sales are discreet, unadvertised, and almost always one brand. If you see a store filled with different brands, it probably isn’t legit. There are even stores that will pop up with 90% off closeout signs that are never going out of business. They are ripping you off. Just do a quick google search and check first.

Most sample sales will have you check your bag when you walk in the door. Feel free to hold onto your wallet and phone while you browse, most people do. Checking your heavy bags at the coat check is actually really helpful while shopping.

Never go in a rush. When I’m rushing I don’t have the time to fully consider a purchase, and this is when things can go awry. Sample sales are always final sale and while marked down, are usually still at the higher end of what I can pay for something. That means you should be 100% sure you love this item, its in great shape, and you can picture exact outfits and events in which you will wear the item. If you can’t, don’t buy it!

Don’t get caught up on what it “used to cost” or what its telling you its “worth”. All those numbers on the tag are totally arbitrary. Completely made up. So if the sweater doesn’t seem like its worth $80, but its telling you its worth $300….still doesn’t matter! Set it down. A deal isn’t a deal if you don’t love it.

I hope this was helpful and maybe encourages you to check out a sale. We could always use more women helping each other zip into dresses.

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