How To Shop a Sample Sale

You’ve seen pieces on how to wear designer clothes on a budget and you’re probably no stranger to the T.J. Maxx and Marshall, but finding Stuart Weitzman heels for less than $100 still eludes you.

Sample sales are one way to access your favorite designer brands for less. It’s also my favorite way to collect interesting garments that I would have never been able to afford at full price (a $2,000 coat, even with a 90% discount, is still $200).

I’ve saved big with sample sale shoes, but my best buy was a $300 Theory x Theyskens skirt that I paid $30 for and then wore on every single internship and job interview in college; I now wear it to work.

Let’s take a step back, though. Sample sales are great, but you need a strategy for how to avoid blowing your budget.

For the newbies, sample sales are when stores or brands need to move old or battered inventory — fast. To get the merchandise off their hands, brands or stores will offer heavy discounts somewhere between 60% and 90%.

Sample sales tend to be held near a brand’s headquarters in major cities but can vary in location if a store is trying to liquidate its inventory. They also aren’t exclusive to high-end brands; Brazilian flip-flops brand Havaianas is just as likely to have merchandise in a sample sale as Alexander Wang.

Following a brand you like on social media and through its email marketing is a good way to learn about possible sales. Sample sales, however, tend to be whispered in hushed tones; companies don’t want to dilute their reputations by advertising steep discounts.

To get in on an upcoming sample sale, you’ll have to look for a third party, like Clothingline, which operates in New York, and 260 Sample Sale, which holds sales in New York and Los Angeles.

And even on some sample sale emails, brand names will not be disclosed as a requested by the company selling its merchandise.

Sample sales tend to last for a few days, so once you know a sale exists and will be selling the brand you like, make sure to attend on the earliest day and time possible.This ensures that the merchandise isn’t picked over.

Some brands are thoughtful enough to stagger their merchandise over the course of the week, so shoppers on Thursday will have a similar selection to shoppers on Monday. Assume this is not the case and head over early in the day; lunchtime and after work hours tend to be the busiest, so avoid those times if you can.

Once you arrive at a sample sale, you’ll likely have to check your bag — you’d be surprised how often people try to steal at these events — and start shopping.

There will be signs everywhere to distinguish the sales price. Some sales do it by category, like $30 for sweaters and $50 for dresses, while others separate merchandise by discount like a red tag means the garment is $80% off and a blue tag indicates a 60% discount.

Some sales will publish their price list ahead of time, which makes it a bit easier to prepare your budget.

With countless options that are highly discounted, it can be tempting to buy more than you need. If you’re someone who can’t demonstrate self-restraint, bring cash and an idea of how much you can, or are willing to, spend. Anything extra simply isn’t in your budget, and a sale isn’t a reason to break it.

Likewise, it’s also helpful to keep in mind what you want.

At a Loeffler Randall sample sale, I had my eyes peeled for the brand’s silver Carter boots. Once I learned they didn’t have my size, I left. It’s easy to justify a sample sale purchase — they’re basically giving it away for free! — but isn’t financially responsible. If you go inside for specific items, you won’t be tempted to purchase a purse, regardless of the discount.

Finally, merchandise sold at sample sales can be damaged from excessive try-ons at the sale or a manufacturing error. Although some issues can easily be repaired, like a loose hem, look for major rips or wear and tear before buying anything. Be realistic about the work you’re willing to put into a garment. If you won’t take a pair of too-long pants to get hemmed, don’t buy them. Sample sales, by nature, are final sale. Don’t pay for something you won’t be able to wear.

-Amanda 👡