NEW YORK -- This month hordes of holiday shoppers are lining the streets of Manhattan's old Garment District on Seventh Avenue for a chance to strip down to their underwear in the middle of a warehouse. Their goal? To buy cut-rate fashion clothes from one of New York's many "sample sales."
Featuring designer-label clothes, housewares and cosmetics normally sold in stores like Hecht's, Bloomingdale's and Macy's, the sales are the fashion industry's equivalent of underground concerts. Unadvertised and staged in warehouses or hotels, sample sales still draw thousands of bargain-hungry consumers vying to buy this year's overstock.
At a recent five-day sale by Harve Benard, buyers gobbled up pure wool lined suits for $199 and calfskin leather handbags for $39.
"I enjoyed the sale for the hunt," said shopper Barbara Swanwick. "Women like to shop the way men like to hunt. I'm definitely doing some Christmas shopping here."
Over the past couple of years sample sales have grown so popular in New York -- about 200 take place each month -- that a small industry has sprung up around them.
Companies such as Samples Inc. and Nice Price stage these sales for the manufacturers and designers. A monthly newsletter, The S&B; [sales and bargains] Report, keeps consumers informed by listing all the companies holding sample sales in New York.
"We started our company seven years ago with only 1,000 customers, now we have over 11,000. We feel we've been instrumental in creating a market." said S&B; publisher Elysa Lazar.
These sales are especially prevalent during the holidays -- a time when demand is high and retailers aren't buying. In addition to Nicole Miller and Harve Benard, companies such as Revlon, Mondi, Betsey Johnson and JH Collectibles are holding sales this month.
"In December retailers are at their peak. They're not buying any more goods. These sales both help us sell our goods directly to the customer and introduce new people to our goods," said Norman Stohler, a representative for Harve Benard.
In addition, the sales are popular with the companies because of their low overhead and low transportation costs -- sometimes the goods can be carried across the street to the sale. And the companies hope to attract customers who one day will be willing to pay the usual higher prices.
The designers, however, have to walk a fine line between unloading surplus merchandise and angering department stores by competing for their customers. Although these sales may take away some shoppers, department stores tend to deny it.
"I don't think it really affects us since most sample sales are in New York. Our business is outside of New York," said Linda Bonica of Nordstrom in Paramus, N.J.
Alan Millstein, editor and publisher of New York-based Fashion Network Report, said sample sales don't hurt big retailers because they draw different customers.
"A customer of a sample sale would rather reveal her true age than shop at Macy's. If there were '12-step' programs for shopping they'd be charter members. It takes a real bargain hunter to go through the humiliation of standing in lines in the freezing cold and trying on things in public. Keep in mind there are no returns and no pretty boxes or gift wrapping."
At the Harve Benard sale in a Seventh Avenue hotel, women fought over silk scarves and handbags while Morton and Bernard Holtzman, the owners of the company, complimented the ladies on how well they looked in their wool coats.
"I come here every year," said Esther Beitchman. "It's hard to find what you want with today's fashion. I wear midcalf and no one else makes that. Here they have wonderful fabrics, wonderful fashions and the prices aren't too bad."