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New York City's best sample sales, and how to score big

For fashion addicts on a budget, there are few things more tempting than the words "sample sale." The signs are everywhere: huge, block letters in neon colors promising designer styles at a fraction of retail prices, staring straight into the shopaholic's soul and willing them to stop in for a peek.

What they don't tell you is that once you step in those doors, you've signed yourself up as a competitor in the fashion world's "Hunger Games." You're entering a battle zone of savvy price tag warriors, each one determined to score the best items before you can get your hands on them.

But fear not, for we are here to help you not only survive your first sample sale, but make it out with steals worth bragging about.

Do your research

Have a clear idea of what the designer’s
Photo Credit: gilt.com

Have a clear idea of what the designer’s clothing, handbags, shoes and jewelry are worth before you go, so you can judge for yourself if you’re getting a good deal. There might be times you find better prices online, on sites like theoutnet.com, gilt.com, ruelala.com or hautelook.com.

Time your visit

Most sample sales are a few days long.
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Gary Gershoff

Most sample sales are a few days long. Looking for the best selection of merchandise? Arrive early on the first day. Depending on the designer and popularity of the sale, there may or may not be a line outside. Looking for the highest markdowns? Come towards the end of the sale. Some sales will get new shipments of merchandise as the week goes on, but you can't count on that, so call ahead and ask if you're torn on when to go.

Have a game plan

Look for signs when you first walk in
Photo Credit: Minyvonne Burke

Look for signs when you first walk in that will usually distinguish what is on sale by category—some items will be more discounted than others. Racks will either be organized by size, or by type of item. Make sure you circle the full space, because shoes, accessories and handbags are often placed in the back. Know what you want going in, and go straight for your section. Then, take your time browsing the others.

Bring cash

Many sample sales only accept cash, so know
Photo Credit: iStock

Many sample sales only accept cash, so know before you go. There’s nothing worse than spending all that time waiting in line, rummaging through the racks, trying things on and making decisions only to get to the register and be turned away. Plus, having a certain amount of cash with you helps you stick to a budget. Which brings us to...

Go in with a set budget

OMG, those shoes were originally $3,500 and now
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Michael Dodge

OMG, those shoes were originally $3,500 and now they’re only $550?! Wake up call: They are still FIVE-HUNDRED-AND-FIFTY-DOLLARS. If that’s within your budget, great! But if you’ll walk out feeling like you saved a fortune only to realize you’ll be eating ramen for the next month, well, it’s time to rethink that purchase. Enter with a set amount of money in your wallet, so you can’t go over. And decide what you’re in the market for, whether it’s one must-have investment piece or a mix of fun, less expensive items to mix up your wardrobe.

Dress smart

Sample sale dressing rooms are communal, if they
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Paul Hawthorne

Sample sale dressing rooms are communal, if they even exist. So wear tight-fitting clothing, like leggings and a tank, that you can quickly throw clothes over, and opt for shoes that easily slip on and off. Do try on clothes when possible, since samples may be altered and are not always true to size.

Bring a friend

Having an ally helps in so many ways—from
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Jemal Countess

Having an ally helps in so many ways—from deciding on what to buy (sometimes we all need a second opinion), to having an extra pair of eyes to scan the crowded racks (recruit someone who knows your size and taste), and extra arms for those times you do go a little crazy.

Don't impulse buy

It’s extremely unlikely you’ll be able to return
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Stephen Chernin

It’s extremely unlikely you’ll be able to return anything you buy, so try to resist the urge to get that coat you secretly know you’ll never wear just because, “It’s [insert designer name] and it’s 80 percent off!” Once you walk in those doors, it’s tough not to come down with sample sale fever, but you’ll regret it as that "deal" you scored hangs in your closet with the tags still on it a year later.

Pay attention to detail

It’s not uncommon for a sample to have
Photo Credit: Nina Ruggiero

It’s not uncommon for a sample to have some damage, like a rip or a stain. If your item is a must-have even with its defect, talk to a salesperson and see if you can get a steeper discount. If not, see if they’ll throw in an extra accessory with your purchase.

Choose your battles wisely

Though it can change from year to year,
Photo Credit: Dan and Corina Lecca

Though it can change from year to year, some sales are known to offer better bargains, or higher quality merchandise than others. Here are some not to miss.

Kleinfeld Bridal
The be all-end all for brides-to-be, Kleinfeld's semi-annual sample sale offers gowns starting at $699. Gowns and accessories are 70 percent off, and shoppers who purchase a VIP pass (usually around $150) get a one-on-one consultation, early access and an extra 25 percent discount. One guest per bride is allowed.
Gilt City New York Warehouse Sale
This is not just a sample sale, it's a shopping event. A $10 ticket will get you access to Gilt's always stocked vault of designer deals for women and men alike, ranging from formalwear and casual to shoes, jewelry and home accessories at up to 90 percent off. Plus, there are cocktails, light bites and usually a pumping DJ.
Rent the Runway
Designer dress rental site Rent the Runway has to get ride of used dresses eventually, and their biannual sale is the place to scoop them up. You'll find designer gowns and dresses at up to 95 percent off, with a wide selection around the $100 mark. There tend to be some damaged pieces, so make sure to check, and don't forget to browse the jewels, clutches and shoes, too.
Christian Louboutin
You'll have to be somebody or know somebody (namely a celebrity, buyer, stylist, fashion editor or Louboutin employee) to get into this coveted biannual sale-- and don't think about trying to weasel your way in otherwise. If you do manage to get your name on the list (and they will check your ID at the door), you will find boxes upon boxes of wild heels, some basics, sandals and boots, usually starting around $150 and going upwards of $500.
Rebecca Minkoff
Fashion-forward 20-somethings can't resist Rebecca Minkoff's handbags and shoes, and her clothes are nothing to scoff at, either. You'll find it all for up to 75 percent off, likely with a DJ playing the hottest tunes and sometimes even with an open bar. Regardless, you'll find yourself swimming in Mini M.A.C.s and printed dresses (or impossibly cool outerwear, depending on the season) at some point, and will likely leave happy.
DVF
Anxious shoppers are still waiting to hear if Diane von Furstenberg's winter sample sale is coming or not, but if so you'll find her signature wrap dresses, bags and accessories for up to 75 percent off... definitely worth the wait.
Manolo Blahnik
The Manolo sale has grown so popular, that last season had staff threatening to make it private a la Christian Louboutin. But it's still open to the public as of now (although VIPs get first dibs), and if you get there early enough you'll likely get your chance to stock up on deeply discounted heels, and become part of a quintessential New York experience to boot.

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