- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2009

NEW YORK — That expensive handbag or designer dress you’ve been eyeing may not be a pipe dream after all.

A growing trend of membership-shopping Web sites brings the sample sales of New York and Los Angeles — special events selling brand-name items at discounted prices — directly to your computer.

Best of all, these deals are available to everyone. All you have to do is register.

Here’s how it works: Sign up for a free membership online at sites such as Rue La La, Gilt Groupe and HauteLook, and you can access exclusive sales from such brands as Marc Jacobs, LaCoste, Tory Burch and even KitchenAid.

The sales usually begin at 11 a.m. or noon Eastern time, depending on the site, and last between 36 and 48 hours. All items are marked down from their regular prices, sometimes by as much as 80 percent.

Gilt Groupe recently listed a silk Zac Posen dress for $798, marked down from $2,600. Rue La La offered a men’s diver Invicta watch for $169. The original price was $595. Ideeli had a Samsonite suitcase for $234 that had been $750.

The idea is to make shopping not only convenient but fun. Since the sales are offered only for a short time with limited merchandise, there’s a competitive vibe to the experience. It’s a growing retail phenomenon that is addictive to its users.

Stacey Santo, Rue La La’s senior vice president of marketing says: “We have members that cancel meetings; we have members that schedule their day around the 11 o’clock (start time). They know about the sales ahead of time, so they can put it in their calendar.”

Rue La La now has a mobile site for iPhone users to shop even when they’re away from the computer.

Michael Meerzoumen, CEO of Editors’ Closet, which specializes in accessories such as handbags and sunglasses, says designers like the idea of selling their items in a private sale to avoid it being picked up by search engines. Brands are conscious of how they appear online, and they don’t want customers to think they can get their items at 70 percent off all the time.

Brands seem to be taking a liking to the idea and now are approaching the sites to do business. “At this point we’re refusing one to two brands a day,” Mr. Meerzoumen says.

Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson founded Gilt Groupe because they were obsessed with sample sales. They wanted to bring that shopping format to a national audience.

Since its launch in 2007, Gilt Groupe has grown to more than a million members.

“Over seventy percent of our growth has come from word of mouth, people recommending our site to a friend. It’s amazing to see how quickly that spreads virally,” Ms. Maybank says.

Most of the sites offer incentives for recruiting new members. Billion Dollar Babes will give you a $25 credit when a friend you recommend places a first order.

They’re also coming up with other ways to stay cutting edge and unique. Ideeli recently auctioned off a custom-design dress by Oscar de la Renta, including a signed sketch of the dress.

Many of the sites now are branching out to sell spa treatments, vacation getaways, housewares and children’s clothing. Other membership sites such as shopittome.com and covet.com search online sales and then try to target which are sent to you based on your preferences.

Although memberships are free, some sites such as ideeli will upgrade your membership for a fee. If you purchase a “front row” membership, you get to shop an hour before everyone else. Billion Dollar Babes offers a VIP membership for $100 a year that gets you, among other things, unlimited free shipping and access to sales two hours before everyone else.

As with all online shopping, you’re taking a chance by ordering an item sight unseen. Just in case, each site has a specific return policy.

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