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Confessions From New York City's Sample Sale Expert

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Mark Ellwood is a bonafide discount expert: through his experience as an author, a fanatic shopper, and son of a coupon-clipping mother, he's learned everything there is to know about never paying full price for anything. His new book, Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World, comes out on the 17th, but since sample sale season is getting ready to blast off at full speed right now, we spoke to him ahead of time to learn a few foolproof tricks of the trade—and why all the hubbub might not be worth it anymore.

Mark's no stranger to Manhattan's sample sale scene, having attended them when they were legitimately all samples. He explains, "When I first moved to New York, sample sales were one of the biggest bonuses. I had never heard of them in London. They were like a secret society at Yale, but for shopping. You'd go to these sample sales and they were one-off pieces and everything was so cheap. You know you had to wear good underwear because you'd have to try everything on in public."

But then he continues with what it's like now. "What's changed is really simple: brick-and-mortar sample sales continue to exist because brands know they're good marketing tools. But now that there are off-price online vendors, you don't need sample sales anymore." Brands like Alexander Wang seem particularly keen to this concept: over the summer, they actually gave merchandise away (an unprecedented, kind of crazy marketing tool), which was followed by an actual sale.

If you're not ready to give them up cold turkey, he recommends being choosy about which you shop. (Anyone disappointed with this year's Hermès sample sale could second that.) "[Organizers] like Shelly & Renee are discerning, and they turn people down. They have a lot of requirements: they won't do swimwear, they won't do denim, and everything has to be 60% off. Now, you need to check who's organizing the sample sale—that makes a big difference. If you have Shelley and Renee at a sale, you're probably better off, even if the brand isn't your favorite."

And avoid the hype: "I think we're going to get to a point where it maxes out, because you see the word 'sample sale' everywhere. I mean, on Bleecker Street there's a store that's a permanent sample sale—that's jut not possible. The thing is, they're not all samples now, they're overstock items and product that's made specially [for the sale]. It's an urban girl's equivalent to the outlet mall. There's really very little that's different."

Another tip for getting into the best sales—often the ones that go unadvertised—was offered up to Mark by Racked's Editorial Director Izzy Grinspan. From the book, Mark explains, "Grinspan has learned to be resourceful in response to [sample sale] secrecy. For one, she obsessively monitors fashion editors' Twitter accounts during sample sale season, usually May and mid-October to mid-November. Though few will be foolish enough to boast of #samplesale purchases, most can't resist bragging about bargain buys with photos. As soon as Grinspan spots a cluster of three or four editors tweeting about the same brand in that way, her bargain antennae start twitching."

A last resort, which might not be enough of a discount for most, is ditching the sample sale formula altogether and turning to the world of department store pre-sales, a place where anyone who shows a modest amount of loyalty to a sales associate can score around 50% off specific brands or merchandise before the sale is advertised to the public.

"Here's the new sample sale," Mark says. "At department stores and big-brand stores, before the sale is the pre-sale—and anyone can get access to a pre-sale, which is normally 40% to 50% off. So is it 80% off? No. Is it a great deal? Yes. And you have access to it. Say you have three favorite brands—three brands that if you had endless money you'd always buy. You pick a place where you're going to buy them, and maybe you buy one full-price piece and tell the sales associate how much you love it. They're human and they want to make commission, and then they know you're a buyer. You know what you're going to get invited to? The Theory pre-sale."

"That's the thing that I think people forget—we're going back in a good way to what shopping should be, which is relationship based." A sales associate told him once, "Outlet malls are a 30% off retail paradigm. Most pre-sales are 50% off. If you're patient and your timing is right, you're actually going to get a better deal. "

Got all that? Great—here's more. We partnered with Mark to offer an exclusive deal on a bonus chapter! Bargain Fever: The Manual features 100 tips and tricks to help you save money on everything from airline tickets to TVs. Order a copy of the book here on Amazon before October 17th and forward the proof of purchase to bonus@mark-ellwood.com and you'll receive a PDF by email on the day of publication. Happy shopping.
· Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World [Amazon]
· Mark Ellwood [Official Site]