Sample Sale Savvy

You’re probably familiar with the term “sample sale,” but you may not know what one is. The definition of a sample sale has changed slightly over the years, says Kathryn Finney, editor of A true sample sale is an event at which designers sell samples used to preview new collections to buyers, manufacturers, and editors before the items are listed. However, sample sales are now run more like warehouse sales at which overstock items, returns, and other products that didn’t sell well are sold. These sales can also be a showcase for up-and-coming designers. The easiest way to find a sample sale near you is to run an Internet search of your city and the term “sample sale.”

Whether you’re looking for samples, overstock, or the latest designer duds, we’ll tell you how to work the room.

1. Learn the payment policy. Most sample sales don’t accept checks and others enforce a strict cash-only or credit card-only policy, so call ahead of time to ask about a sale’s payment policy. Keep in mind that all sales are final.

2. Shop early for a wide selection and late for discounts. You’ll get the best selection on the first day of the sale, first thing in the morning. But if you’re looking for deep discounts, wait until the last day when sellers are eager to move inventory. Shopping expert Rima Suqi ( advises going one step further and waiting until the final hour of a sample sale to get even deeper discounts.

3. Travel light. Another rule of thumb is to carry as few personal belongings as possible. “Don’t bring a bag, strollers, or kids,” says Finney. “Many sample sales want you to check your bag.” Finney also advises wearing form-fitting undergarments to try on clothes, as there are often no dressing rooms.

4. Inspect items before you buy. The condition of products sold at sample sales may vary. Some returns might have stains or defects, for example. But once you hand over your cash, it’s yours, so look at items carefully before making a purchase.

5. Know that you might not get a deal. While sample sales may seem like the perfect opportunity to score discounts on your favorite items, Finney emphasizes that these sales are primarily beneficial if you’re looking for a specific designer. To prove her point, Finney recalls a time when she bought a red Kate Spade wallet at a sample sale for $40, and then saw the same wallet for $30 at a Saks Fifth Avenue outlet store.