8 Tips for Navigating a Sample Sale

How to find the best stuff, score the best deals, and not lose your sanity

Because I live in a major city and have multiple friends working in the fashion industry, I come across or hear about sample sales almost every week. Still, I don't always take advantage -- the long lines, the crowds, and temptations to splurge have kept me away. But then my roommate (who works for a major handbag company, mind you) will come home with $2,500 worth of designer merchandise that she just bought for $200 at a sample sale, and I'll suffer a major bout of shopping envy and think, how come some people have such luck at sample sales? Are there certain tricks these women know?

Turns out, there are. Read on for a few of the best tips that every savvy sample sale shopper knows. With a little practice, you'll become an old pro yourself.

1. Beware the pseudo sale. Plenty of retailers misleadingly throw around the term “sample sale” because it's eye-catching to shoppers, not because they're hawking true sample pieces from a designer's line. Genuine sample sales are put on by a designer selling his or her unused or unsold stock items at clearance prices -- don't be fooled by the others.

2. Show up early. If a sample sale is open for business for three days in a row, showing up in the first few hours on that first day is crucial. In fact, plenty of shoppers will line up hours in advance of the sale start time in order to get first pick among the goods (and they swear it's worth the effort).

3. Dress accordingly. Sample sales have notoriously huge, crowded, not-private dressing rooms, and the pace will be very rushed. For those reasons, wear clothes that are easy to slip on and off, and if you're on the shy side, throw on a camisole and boy-shorts under your outfit so that you never have to completely disrobe in public.

4. Bring a buddy. A friend can help carry your shopping bags, save your place in line, and talk you out of dropping $400 on those impractical (but gorgeous) metallic stilettos that you'll never wear. A patient friend whose opinion you trust is ideal.

5. Don't lose your head. Speaking of impractical impulse purchases, keep in mind that 99 percent of sample sales do not accept returns. Don't waste money on anything you're feeling lukewarm about -- you'll be stuck with it.

6. Carefully inspect clothing, handbags, belts, and accessories for irregularities like missing buttons, misaligned stitching and hems, or broken zippers. If the item is damaged, can it be repaired? How much would that cost you? Decide if the item is worth fixing -- many sample sale pieces are not.

7. Have a plan. If you're going to a sale with a specific item -- like a new coat -- in mind, keep your eyes on the prize. It's easy to get distracted by flashier items (evening dresses and handbags, for instance) that will be planted right at the entrance to the sale. Keep walking!

8. Bring cash. Most sample sales accept credit cards nowadays, but by bringing cash (and leaving your cards at home) you'll be certain to stick to a predetermined budget. Just be very careful with your wallet, and you're good to go!

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