A long-time sample sale enthusiast, the founder of the blog Sample Sally was waiting in line for a Marc Jacobs sale in 2011 when she suddenly had an epiphany.
Despite the proliferation of blogs beginning in the early aughts, there were few sites covering sample sales outside of Racked, then the pre-eminent source for sale details. Sites like the now defunct Mizhattan reported on sales, but there weren’t many sharing in-depth reviews to help shoppers sift through the rising number of events.
The blogger (who works full-time in fashion media and requested to be referred to as “Sally” to protect her anonymity) felt compelled to help. Her intent was to lend a hand to shoppers trying to determine if having their hair pulled for a pair of discount Louboutins was worth their time and sanity.
Now seven years later, she continues to report on sample sales for consumers in a way that, she says, provides value beyond the smattering of sites just listing sales and sharing calendars. She’s even been able to profit from advertising and sponsored posts.
“There are a lot of places you can get listenings, but not a lot of places for reviews,” she said. “I go to the sales that are interesting, I cover them, I write reviews. The site has a following, and it’s grown. There’s a huge community that loves going to them and finding bargains on high-end brands.”
During a period when physical retail is on the decline as consumers turn to e-commerce, sample sales have managed to persevere, thanks to a group of rabid followers. The ability of sample sales to continue to draw mobs of shoppers is particularly impressive, given the rise of flash sale sites like Gilt, Rue La La and HauteLook, which offer deals on luxury items without the line. Though Gilt announced it was moving away from the flash sale model earlier this year, at its peak in 2010, it brought in $425 million.
This is, in part, because shoppers love the hunt. Psychologists have documented that the thrill of scoring a bargain is enhanced by the stimulation of visually seeing and feeling stacks of clothing. Now social media and blogs are helping enhance the process. Digital tools like Sally’s are helping drive shoppers to sales en masse, because of how quickly information can be disseminated.
Sample sales in the digital era
When sample sales originally rose to prominence in New York in the 1970s and ’80s, they typically included discounted factory models or garments used at runway shows and magazine shoots. Today, they include overstock inventory, as brands embrace the ability to capitalize on the sales.
Just as the composition of the sample sale has changed, so too has the way they are communicated and promoted, thanks largely to the rise of blogs and social media. In 1996, The New York Times wrote that sample sales were starting to shed their clandestine identities. Thanks to the birth of the web, dates and locations were finally more than just insider murmurings, and an increasing number of brands were using the sales to pawn off their products.
“Just a decade ago, you had to bribe the elevator operator to get in. It was all word-of-mouth, an underground venue for designers to recoup a small amount of money by selling design samples to industry insiders,” wrote the late New York Times reporter Monique P. Yazigi in 1996. “Now it has turned into big business, with mailing lists, private clients and organized newsletters giving entry to anyone who can figure out how to work the maze.”
Now, these newsletters are blasted digitally to huge readerships, and anyone with access to a computer or mobile phone can immediately tweet or post information about a sale to followers. Take Jen (her last name has also been omitted to protect her identity) who works on Wall Street during the day, writes her personal blog StyleCurated on weekends and contributes to Sample Sally.
“I gave Sally some some feedback on Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney sales three years ago. It was amazing; nobody was there,” she said. “Then she was interested in having me contribute. I used to a lot more, but now my day job office moved to Jersey City.”
Both Jen and Sally said Racked’s transformation has played a role in the increased demand for their work. Before Racked (along with its parent company Curbed) was acquired by Vox Media in 2013, the publication centered primarily on localized shopping coverage in cities beyond just New York, much of which was sample sale-focused. It wasn’t until 2016, when Vox hired Britt Aboutaleb to serve as editor-in-chief of Racked, that it moved away from sales and toward fashion news and features.
Aboutaleb said dropping sample-sale coverage allowed her to dedicate more resources to areas like investigative journalism, while carving a more focused editorial strategy. At the same time, brands were more openly promoting their own sales, which meant there was less need to track and cover sales.
“It was part of the strategy of refocusing, redefining and relaunching Racked,”Aboutaleb said. “We wanted to create a shopping destination for smart people who buy stuff. This involved shuttering the local sites and tightening the focus to one brand, which looks at how people around the country shop for things and how they choose to represent themselves aesthetically. Sample sales were not a part of how the brand was moving forward.”
As with any major editorial switch, some readers were initially upset with the change. Aboutaleb said the team has acknowledged that Racked was an important resource for sale information, and makes an effort to retain some of its sample-sale listings by sharing updates in its local New York and Los Angeles newsletters.
Sally said her readers still talk about the void in coverage since Racked stopped covering sales, despite her own best efforts. Though other publications like Refinery29 have since added sample sales to their sites, Sally said there’s little money around sample sale coverage — while brands are more open about promoting sample sales, they don’t feature them in ads or affiliate links in the same way they do with traditional sales and inventory.
Managing sample sales
Jen, the Sample Sally contributor, said that after nearly a decade of attending sales around the city, she’s been most struck by how much more organized they’ve become in recent years. Certain designers like Phillip Lim have held sales in their offices or showrooms, providing fashion enthusiasts an inside look at the fashion business. Now most of the sales are operated through companies like 260 Sample Sale, which identifies venues and hosts sales.
Recently, 260 Sample Sale has proven a particularly valuable resource for fashion brands setting their sights westward. As more designers, like Rebecca Minkoff and Tommy Hilfiger, begin showing in Los Angeles, more sample sales are being held there. As a result, 260 Sample Sale, which was founded in New York in 1999, opened its first branch in Los Angeles in September.
“Though the sample sale culture is not as prevalent in L.A. as it is here in New York, we’re happy to provide [our services] to the California customer,” said Laura DiGiovanna, director of marketing at 260 Sample Sale. “Throughout the years, we’ve received countless requests to expand out to LA from both clients and customers, and we finally did it.”
Despite the democratization of sample sales, some remain shrouded in secrecy, especially for the most luxe brands. Companies like Gucci, Céline and Hermès are notorious for holding sales exclusively for employees and friends of the brands. Those that let in outsiders maintain a very limited, hand-selected guest list, comprised of high-profile fashion editors and industry members.
Ultimately, Jen said, she doesn’t anticipate sample sales will go anywhere, and she thinks luxury brands will continue to open their doors the public in order to profit.
“It’s a good idea for brands to be able to offer discounts and offload their product, and it’s a good way for consumers to feel like they’re getting something unique at a discount,” she said. “In this day and age of overconsumption and mass commercialism, it’s good to know some of this stuff is actually going somewhere.”