Back to Basics: How to Shop Sample Sales

Score the best deals without compromising your sanity.
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Score the best deals without compromising your sanity.
Abbi and Ilana didn't have the most positive sample sale experience on 'Broad City.' Photo: Comedy Central

Abbi and Ilana didn't have the most positive sample sale experience on 'Broad City.' Photo: Comedy Central

"Basic" may have adapted a negative connotation in recent years, but there's no shame in seeking advice on theoretically simple sartorial conundrums. In our latest column, "Back to Basics," we're here to guide you through life's most common (and important) fashion and beauty concerns. Hot topic: how to navigate sample sales.

It's likely that when you think of sample sales, long lines, catfights and overwhelming bins full of crap to rummage through all come to mind first. This might lead you to believe they're just not worth the effort and resort to paying full price or settling for a paltry end-of-season 40 percent off discount, instead. But that's for amateur bargain hunters, because sample sales are totally worth it if you shop them the right way. And I would know. 

See, I started my fashion writing career covering the New York City sample sale beat, which is pretty intense, to say the least. In the name of journalism, I waited hours in line — sometimes in subzero windchill and snow — just to document women frantically snatching up as many Clic-Clac bracelets as they could at the Hermès sales. I was yelled at by a lady who brought her baby to the Manolo Blahnik sale and I once frantically pawed through ratty boxes to find one pristine condition Alexander Wang sample sweater — for $10. TL;DR, I know my shit when it comes to sample sales, and now I want to share my from-the-front-lines, on-the-job wisdom with you. Because we should all emerge victorious from what's not such an intimidating shopping experience, after all.

KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SAMPLES AND OVERSTOCK

Traditionally, "sample sale" means a brand is selling heavily discounted sample designs made for the factories to base production on, press pieces sent out for editorial shoots, designs that models wear on the runway or — the best — one-off, never-produced items. But these days, what's billed as a "sample sale," might actually be overstock marked up to 80 or 90 percent off (the best ones), the traditional true samples or a mix of both. 

Shopping samples is great because you might find a current season item for a fraction of the retail price, and the one-off production pieces are extra special finds because no one else on the planet will have them. But the sample game has its caveats. Sizes are limited: usually running from 2 to 6 for clothing, 7 or 8 for production sample shoes and 9 or higher for runway shoes (because models are tall). Plus, damages run rampant, so scrutinize each piece carefully before committing. Overstock pieces will be past-season, but offer size selection and don't involve the wear and tear. Not that one is better than the other, but it helps to know the difference.

DO YOUR RESEARCH

It helps to have a general idea of the full retail and current sale pricing for, say, that 3.1 Phillip Lim bag or Paul Andrew heel you have your eye on — just so you know the extent of the deal on offer. (The Shopstyle iPhone app is great for on-the-spot price checks.) Also, look at small dedicated blogs, like Mizhattan and Sample Sally in New York, and your local Racked for the correct location, RSVP protocol (if there is one), hours and payment methods (some are cash only). Following the blogs on social is great for up-to-the-minute reports on those dreaded lines and updates on what to expect inside. Also, sign up with sale organizers (like 260 Sample Sale) and directly with the brands, for email updates and — fingers crossed — early access.

YOUR OUTFIT IS IMPORTANT

The term "dressing room" is a bit of a hyperbole when it comes to sample sales — if one is even available. It's usually more of an ad-hoc curtained off area where you're stripping down in front of other shoppers... of all genders. More often than not, dedicated shoppers will just unrobe in whatever open space they can call dibs on. So wearing an outfit you can easily fit clothes over, like a cami and skinny jeans, is optimal for protecting your modesty (if you care), but also to remain quick and nimble while you shop. Same goes for footwear: slip-on shoes or boots are ideal for streamlining the fitting process. Also pack light. Many sales make you check your coat and bag at the door, but they might let you in carrying a teeny, wallet-size cross-body.

KEEP AN OPEN MIND

Just know that you will have to sacrifice on some levels in exchange for the discount. First, there might be a line, especially at the hot ticket sales — Alexander Wang, Jimmy Choo (above, per Mizhattan's Instagram), always Hermès, and the like — so be prepared to wait. A sale might not have that exact item you're obsessing over, but you could come across something even more amazing (and cheaper). Also, be willing to shop off-season. Summer is an opportune time to snatch up beautiful wool coats and normally overpriced designer leather jackets on heavy discount. Finally, be confident in your purchases because returns are usually never an option.

BE STRATEGIC ABOUT TIMING

Not that we condone lying to your employers, but it pays to go early to score a good spot in line and have your pick of the most (and best) options and the limited samples, which usually aren't replenished. But, on the flip side, overstock is usually refreshed throughout the duration of a sale and further discounting might happen as the sales progress. So it can pay to shop later, too. Or, you know, just go multiple times.

DON'T FORGET THE LITTLE GUYS

The bigger brands offer the high-profile deals, but they also usually involve massive lines and huge crowds. So we suggest visiting the favorite smaller indie brand sales, which tend to involve plenty of samples, great deals and a lot less pushing. Plus, showroom sales are fantastic options for cool indie brands and loads of samples. The Archetype Showroom sale is the only place I can afford Won Hundred, and Want Agency unloads current season Maison Kitsuné pieces and Want Les Essentials bags and backpacks.

LASTLY, HAVE SOME ETIQUETTE

While generally, all's fair in love, war and sample sale shopping, try to maintain a modicum of common courtesy and decorum. If there isn't a dressing room, find a somewhat discreet corner to try on clothes or at least don't obstruct an aisle or other racks. If there is a dressing room, don't hog the mirror. Don't get physical. I know childcare is expensive in New York, but don't bring your baby, especially in a massive aisle-blocking stroller. Obviously, don't steal from someone's pile when they aren't looking and don't hoard. Hoarding is the worst. In short, don't be an asshole — because shopping karma is real.

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