If you’re confused about sample sales, you’re not alone. Movies and TV shows set in New York City have painted a cryptic picture of these crazy clearances. See: the chaos of the “Confessions of a Shopaholic” sample sale, the “Wizards of Waverly Place” Crazy 10-Minute Sale (at a store called, ahem, “Suburban Outfitters”) and Carrie Bradshaw being robbed at gunpoint in “Sex and the City” (“Please, sir, they’re my favorite pair. I got them half-price at a sample sale!”).
There are so many questions to be answered about sample sales: What is a sample? What is a sample sale? Where are sample sales? When are the best times to go to a sample sale? How do I know what brands are being sold at the sample sale? How do I know when and where the best deals are? Jill Fabiano, CAS Senior and certified sample sale expert, is here to answer these questions.
“Samples are what they use on the runway or pieces that might have a messed up hem or something. They’re not perfect pieces and they’re getting rid of it for very cheap,” Fabiano said. “Designers take last season’s stock and reduce the prices and sell way cheaper than they sell in stores. It’s up to 90% off, sometimes 95%. You can get the craziest deals.”
260 Sample Sale, one of the spots to find the best deals, has five locations throughout the city: 260 Fifth Ave, 150 Greene St., 151 Wooster St., 704 Broadway (260 Final Sale) and 2151 Broadway (260 Final Sale).
Fabiano added that Clothingline on 36th Street is a secondary sample sale storefront that she tends to visit also. Though they tend to have smaller designer brands, they have a once per season sale exclusively of Theory, Helmut Lang and Vince shoes, all priced at $10.
While sample sales seem like a foolproof way to score low price designer clothing, it’s a bit trickier than that.
“It’s more of an art than a science,” Fabiano said about getting the best deals.
She explained that prior to her first sample sale, she was unaware that sample sales generally reduce prices as the week goes on.
“Obviously, it’s my first sample sale so I’m like ‘These the best deals ever!’ I spent probably $200. And then the next day, 260 [Sample Sale] posted that there were reductions and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding? I just bought this yesterday.’ Then I went back and I bought more. I learned the hard way. But it taught me a hard lesson that I had to wait until the weekend.”
The more Fabiano talked more about the art of sample sale shopping, the more questions were raised. How can the art of sample sale shopping be perfected in order to obtain valuable products at the lowest price? If you go too early, the prices are still high, but if you go too late, the good stuff has already been snatched up.
“If you love the brand and you would buy it full price anyway, go the first day because there will be the biggest selection and then you can stock up your wardrobe,” Fabiano said. “But if you’re buying just [ready to wear], wait until the end because they’ll most likely have a lot of stock. The sales always start on Tuesday and usually [they start reducing] on Friday, Saturday and Monday.”
Fabiano’s secret tool to navigating this Goldilocks zone is Instagram.
“A bunch of people I follow are press, so they go the day before it actually opens. They’ll post and say, ‘Definitely go the first day’ or, ‘Wait until there’s more reductions,’” Fabiano said.
Some of Fabiano’s most beloved accounts are @madisonavenuespy, @clothingline and @260samplesale. She also advises checking their Instagram stories on which they frequently post pictures of what is available.
Fabiano has also found success going to the physical stores. At her sample sale shopping peak, Fabiano went about four times per week.
“Because there were three different  locations at the time, I would go to each one at least once a week. Sometimes if I go and there’s not a long line, I just look to see if there’s anything I want and then when there’s further reductions and I think the price is right, I’ll go back and see if it’s still there,” she said. “A Saks Off Fifth closed in my town in Massachusetts and that sale was insane. I stopped by almost every single day.”
Even with a calculated approach, though, sample sale shopping can go awry.
“I once bought myself a pair of Celine shoes that were $600 and they ended up being $30 and I was so excited. Then I go home and I put on the shoes and I realized they were both left feet and two different sizes,” Fabiano said, now far enough removed to laugh about the incident.
But Fabiano thinks that the daily dedication pays off.
“Last semester, I went to one and it was designer purses that were damaged. Some would have probably cost $15 to fix. It was, like, $200 for a damaged Louis Vuitton, and you can’t get Louis Vuitton on sale. I showed up and [the sign] said $200 for Louis Vuitton and $50 for any other designer. I was one of the first people in and I was grabbing bags and hoarding them all so I could sort through it after. I was trying to find the least damaged ones, obviously. I got this brand new, perfect condition Cartier purse that was $1100 for $50 and I just need to get the damage fixed,” Fabiano said excitedly.
Another aspect of sample sale shopping that new shoppers may not be familiar with is the dressing room situation.
“[The dressing room] is one big room. I know some people feel really uncomfortable, but you have to realize that literally no one cares or is paying attention. Everyone wants to get in and out and get what they want.”
Fabiano has a strict rulebook for sample sale shopping.
“Wear comfortable clothing. In the beginning, you think you should like look cute, but wear leggings, a good bra and underwear so that you feel comfortable in the dressing room and so you know what the clothing really looks like on. Be nice and friendly to the workers. Dress weather-appropriate because you might be in line for a long time. Don’t buy just to buy. That was one mistake I made in the beginning. There will be so many good sales during the week.”
While this sounds like a lot of shopping for one college girl, Fabiano isn’t in the sample sale shopping game for just herself.
“She’s definitely not a selfish sample sale shopper,” Fabiano’s best friend, Maddy Mitchell said. “She always texts in our group chat to see if we want anything … she likes to spread the wealth and is always getting her friends and family presents from sales.”
Growing up, Fabiano loved “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” so sample sales have long been a meaningful motif for her. After moving to New York, she found herself in a world where she would go to actual sample sales all the time, which has taught her how to appreciate a really good deal. She jokes that in the pantry at her apartment, everyone has a shelf stocked with food while hers is just boxes of shoes.
“Sample sales shopping has introduced me to so many new brands and has got me really interested in fashion and now I’m realizing that I want to incorporate that into my job in the future,” she said. “Fashion to me now is more than what I look like, but more that I appreciate it.”
A version of this article appears in the Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, print edition. Email Kylie Smith at [email protected]