Before the Web, New Yorkers had access to designers and their new, hot goods by way of sample sales. Every season, manufacturers (now called designers) would sell goods directly to customers at wholesale prices right off the factory floor or, more likely, in the showroom. Bargain hunters could walk away with fresh, hot styles for 50-70 percent off retail, and they could even snag a real sample: imagine owning a one-of-a-kind Armani top or Nicole Miller bag.
But to get styles right off the rack, you had to know someone. As a kid, I had the invincible Mollie Adler, who happened to be my grandmother and president of Harry Adler Coat Co., a manufacturer of oversized women's coats.
Before designer labels were the rage, my grandmother would drag me directly to top manufacturers' factories to pick out a new coat each season. At the time, I was embarrassed about getting goods wholesale and scared of the manufacturers, who typically smoked cigars and told bad jokes.
Elysa Lazar, a fellow New Yorker, also remembers being "petrified of the freight elevators in the dark halls of the factories" when her mom dragged her around the garment district on the sly. But once inside, Lazar could sense her mother's excitement at seeing all the cardboard boxes full of clothes on the showroom floors.
In 1986, Lazar took the garment industry's secret public and launched the "Sale & Bargains Report," a monthly underground guide to sample sales in New York. For those unfamiliar with sample sales, these are not sales of fabric samples, but fully produced clothing designs made as samples to encourage large orders from potential buyers.
Secret no more
Each month, Lazar's S & B Report lists up to 250 secret showroom sales.
"It took a long time to get the designers to trust me," says Lazar who now get scoops from 3,000 designers about upcoming sales. Shoppers, though, must pay for this news: A regular subscription costs $59 a year. And the S & B Report's elite subscribers, known as the "black-belt shoppers," pay an additional $65 for weekly updates. But to diehard New York shoppers, these subscription fees were insignificant; they considered the S & B Report to be the bible of shopping.
Enter everyone's newest listing device: the Web. Lazar Shopping, a new online site, posts a few samples sales, but only hard-copy subscribers continue to get the full listing. Lazar's Web site is simple, user friendly and loads a lot quicker than most of its competitors. And its intent is simple: it lists only sample sales. To attract a national audience, Lazar launched the first "real-time" or live sample sale on June 14, allowing cyber-shoppers to vie with New York City's finest bargain hunters for Italian leather goods at the "i santi" warehouse sale. By 5 p.m. that day, 74 customers had placed online orders for these upscale products.
Veronique Barach, founder of another Web sale listing called Insider Shopping, realized awhile back that sale shoppers wanted to explore more than the designer showrooms. So, in 1997, she launched FINDaSALE, now known as Insider Shopping. Insider Shopping posts all sorts of sales and promotions online, including those of department stores, outlets, catalogs and Web sites, from two major cities: New York and Los Angeles. In L.A., listings include a typical bargain-hunter's paradise like Loehmann's as well as sample sales at California Mart in the city's Fashion District.
Next month, Insider Shopping plans to add online sale listings in New Jersey and Connecticut, Chicago, San Diego and San Francisco. There's no subscription or membership fee to view sales online, and retailers list sales for free. But Barach makes money from retailers who pay an extra fee for preferred top placement on the site. Insider Shopper does not run any banner advertisements, says Barach, who thinks banner ads make sites look too commercial. She also seems determined to avoid mounting a full-service e-commerce site where consumers can buy directly online.
On Insider Shopping, sales are listed by city, Web site and catalog, and some sales overlap among the categories. The organization of search tools within the categories isn't as clear as it could be, and the purple-and-orange color scheme looks more like something for a baseball team than a shopping site. The site seems hastily designed. And less-affluent shoppers should beware: Insider Shopping intends to list only high-end retailers, says Bethany Lesieur. "Macy's is the lowest [pricewise] we will go," she explains.
Shop the world
At Styleshop.com, in contrast, President Lisa Boyne plans to include everyone. This "we-are-the-world" Web site aims to list every sale at every store in every city, and be a full-service e-commerce site as well, says Boyne, who works out of a penthouse office in New York's East Village. Officially launched this month, the site has 247 cities, 600 designers and 500,000 stores and is continually expanding.
Styleshop.com replaces another insider favorite known as "samplesale.com," which listed sales in seven cities. Now, if you type in "samplesale.com," you're automatically re-routed to Styleshop. However, not to worry, samplesale.com has been incorporated into the mega-site as a section called "Sales and Bargains."
The Styleshop.com site, designed by Boyne and her colleagues, seems flawless. Every component of the site is carefully crafted. Shoppers can search by city, brand and category. A city search yields an interactive calendar, quick picks and feature articles. The electronic calendar lets shoppers list sales for the entire month or potential shopping days. Why torture yourself knowing about sales on Monday, if you can only shop on Thursday? Quick picks are the staff's recommendations for that month.
Whether Styleshop.com conquers the shopping world or not, Boyne's ambition and confidence are commendable. "I have a mind that thinks like the Web," she says, adding that she first designed the site by scribbling on cocktail napkins. Retailers post basic information on the site for free but pay premiums for additional notices, such as links and banner ads. Web links cost $500 a year, catalog requests are an additional $500 and access to a mailing list costs $400. Profits also will be made from e-commerce and e-mail subscriptions.
Partnerships and portals
Boyne also only takes on the big players. Dismissing Lazar's S & B Report and Insider Shopping as either obsolete or irrelevant, she says her prime competitors are an outlet Web site known as Bluefly.com (See The wide world of Web specials by Teri Goldberg), and portal sites such as MSN Sidewalk and City Search.
Lazar has a partnership with MSN Sidewalk, and Insider Shopping is linked with CitySearch. Both sale sites provide a portion of their sale listings to the online city guides in exchange for national exposure. Barach is also negotiating some new partnerships but the details are still under wraps.
On the other hand, SALEseeker.com wants the world to know about its "content agreement" with Lycos Inc. As of Tuesday, SALEseeker.com began providing content for a sales and specials section on the Lycos Network.
Launched this past February, SALEseeker intends to list all shopping venues, says Wayne Bullock, president of the West Chester, Pa.-based company. That means travel, small appliances and automotive items in addition to apparel, Bullock says.
However if SALEseeker wants to compete, Bullock and his 10-person staff have some catching up to do. Currently, 11,000 merchants have registered with SALEseeker.com and the Web design is awkward. Shoppers can search the site by ZIP code or product category, and find a sale or special within 20 miles of that ZIP code. But sales are listed in chart form, and customers have to click through many screens to get the actual sale information. For example, if you enter your ZIP code, a chart that contains the numbers of sales for each product category and type of retailers appears without any sale information. Bullock plans to add editorial content, and also sell banner advertisements.
From the shopper's perspective, how this worldwide exposure of once-secret sample sales will effect getting good deals is uncertain. But my guess is that the underground shoppers will always lead the pack. They may not need to put up with cigar-smoking manufacturers or brave dark hallways anymore, but once a black-belt shopper always a black belt, Web sale sites or not.