- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2004

NEW YORK - Helen Swerko-Steinberg cant 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.

Mrs. Swerko-Steinberg brings along her daughter, Caitlin, 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 Mrs. Swerko-Steinberg, who was a department-store buyer in New York from 1976 to 1984.

Mrs. Swerko-Steinberg learned about sample sales through her former career. But with the growth of the Internet, consumers across 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,” Miss 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 more than 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 werent 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 designers clothes come out, and the designer has some opportunity to either meet and greet, and see the clothes on the customer and to gather information for the mailing list,” said Miss 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 Manhattans Chelsea district stretched more than two blocks on a December weekend.

Some of the sample-sale shoppers are people who can well afford to pay full price at retail, Miss Levy said.

One problem with the greater advertising about sample sales is they have lost some of their exclusivity. But Miss Levy said some designers still are sharing their samples only with insiders.

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