NEW YORK Helen Swerko-Steinberg can't find designer deals like a Victor Costa evening gown at cost in Cape Coral, Fla. So she makes regular trips to New York sample sales in search of high fashion at low prices.
Swerko-Steinberg brings her daughter, Caitlin, along to scour the sales. The two were in New York to do their Christmas shopping recently and spent a day at the sales where designers sell garments and accessories that never made it to the stores. At a Triple 5 Soul sale, Caitlin walked out with trendy jeans, skirts and T-shirts for her friends. At a Bluefly.com sale, she found a blue lace dress and a cashmere sweater for herself.
"I am trying to teach Caitlin to buy better fabrics and quality construction instead of fads," said Swerko-Steinberg, who was a department store buyer in New York from 1976-84.
Swerko-Steinberg learned about sample sales through her former career. But with the growth of the Internet, consumers around the country and even around the world can find out about them from a variety of Web sites, including www.thebudgetfashionista.com, www.dailycandy.com and www.nysale.com.
"Once upon a time they were an industry secret. Now countless publications, both online and off, feature them, making them available to the masses," said Dany Levy, editor-in-chief and chairwoman of DailyCandy Inc., whose free daily e-mail reports events and hot new products.
Kathryn Finney, editor-in-chief of www.thebudgetfashionista.com, lives in Pittsburgh but has been frequenting the New York sales since 1994. Her most successful steal, she says, was a Cynthia Rowley black knit dress for $30.
"Most people are starting to realize that designer and discount are not mutually exclusive terms," Finney said. "I also get several e-mails per week from readers who are traveling to New York City, L.A. or Chicago and want information on sale events during their trip."
She said she recently bought beaded chandelier earrings like those dangling from the ears of the hottest celebrities to walk the red carpet for $5 at a sample sale.
Sample sales have been a growing trend for over a decade, said Patricia M. Mulready, owner of Fascination Media, a media and consulting firm, and a former
professor on the social psychology of fashion. She noted that the sales are taking over a function from outlet stores, which originally were intended to sell designer samples along with products that weren't selling well and items that had slight-to-major defects.
"Those were the days of $300 leather skirts being found for $25 in Reading, Pa. Today, outlet stores still have samples, but the discounts are generally less," she said. "In addition, some designers and manufacturers make items which are their own 'knockoffs' for the outlet stores; cheaper copies of their higher end clothing using polyester instead of silk, not as much detailing. These require a very savvy shopper to spot."
Linda Arroz, a fashion marketing consultant with Makeovermedia.com, says the sample sales help designer fashion firms build brand loyalty with shoppers.
"The customers who really like the designer's clothes come out, and the designer has some opportunity to either meet and greet, and see the clothes on the customer (especially true for smaller companies who might be trendy or hot) and to gather information for the mailing list," said Arroz.
"The idea of a sample sale also makes the customers feel like insiders, so it is a marketing tool as well," she said.
Word of sales definitely gets around. The line to get into a Kate Spade handbag sale in Manhattan's Chelsea district spanned more than two blocks on a recent weekend.
And some of the sample sale shoppers are people who can well afford to pay full price at retail, Levy said.
While New York remains the top spot for sample sales, "they are cropping up across the country," especially in Los Angles, said Levy. And thebudgetfashionista.com is among the sites that publicize those sales.
One problem with the greater advertising about sample sales is they have lost some of their exclusivity. But Levy said some designers are still sharing their samples only with insiders.
"Most vendors want to unload extra inventory at the end of a season," said Levy. "But a few upscale fashion houses keep their sales 'private,' allowing only a select few to attend."