Sample Sales from a Designer’s POV

The Bargain Queen’s post on sample sales prompted me to write a post of my own on the subject. In fact, Her Royal Majesty emailed me and Kathleen, asking if her post had any glaring errors. I didn’t find any, but was in general amused by how shoppers view sample sales.

I am a veteran of the battlefield otherwise known as the sample sale and I have to say, in short, they suck. For us working the sales, anyway. I’ve never shopped one as I try to avoid them at all costs.

The main reason I despise sample sales is how we choose what to sell. Every approach has its pros and cons, and they’re discussed more exhaustively than you can imagine. Either that or I’ve worked for incredibly indecisive people.


1. You have your photoshoot samples, the tiny samples from last season that you no longer need. Or do you? Should you have an ongoing archive of your collections? What if we want to repeat some of these styles/silhouettes/etc next season because it was so wildly popular?

2. You have not perfect samples. Do you really want to sell these imperfect goods so people see the crap armhole and think that’s indicative of our tailoring? The too-loose elastic? The embroidery with the wrong colors? But what else do we do with it? Throw it away so it can sit in a landfill for a million years because of our market strategy?

3. You have excess inventory from last season that didn’t sell, not even on sale. Ouch. That just hurts. You can only chant “learn and move on, learn and move on” so many times before you start feeling sick to your stomach.

4. Some celebrity borrowed something and it was returned in less than perfect condition. (I’m sorry–I guess the last part of that sentence was rather redundant.) Who really wants something with Flavor-of-the-Week’s pit stains? (Ugh, don’t answer that.)

The point is, inventory is money and if it’s just sitting on a rack in storage, that’s money you put in a sock under your bed. It gains no interest, the value depreciates over time, and is of no use to you.

Okay, so we’ve spent the entirely-too-many-hours picking what goes on sale. Next you pick the date. Definitely not during blow-out sale season in the stores–too much competition. And not after a major holiday like, for example, the entire month of January when everyone’s wallets are recovering. Of course, not during tradeshow season–we’re too busy. Not that date–half the girls working the sale observe the Jewish holidays, not that date–billion dollar bobbleheads are having their sale, not that date–I want the sale money to file for this quarter.

Now the major details have been sorted, on to picking a venue, deciding whether you’ll go solo or invite other companies (the smaller you are, the wiser the latter choice is), setting the hours, finalizing who’s working the sale, putting together a lovely poster and mailing everybody in time (not too soon, lest they forget, and not too late, lest they already have plans).

Man, I’m exhausted just typing all this stuff out.

Alright, now we’re at the day of the sale. So much fun I can’t even tell ya. Let’s just go over some things that have run through my head during these sales, as outwardly I smile and nod:

“Please stop tugging on my shirt to get my attention…no, seriously, stop pulling on my clothes…gaahhh!!!! STOP TUGGING AT MY CLOTHES!”

“The size 0 is too big for you? I’m sorry–I just don’t have much sympathy for you. Please take your loud nasal whine elsewhere, thanks.”

“Why exactly did we put all the effort in putting up “CASH ONLY” signs everywhere if apparently no one in this room knows how to read except me?”

“This blouse is $45 to make, and by selling it for $50, we’re making a grand $5 off of it, and you know this thing sells for $200+ retail and now you’re asking for a discount because it doesn’t have the cute extra button in a plastic baggie on a hangtag? I will find you that cute extra button and shove it down your throat, you (*^&%*!%&#*(%(@!”

And then the sale is over. Sometimes you blow out everything and there’s enough cash for you to go to New York for a much needed sourcing trip. Sometimes you don’t make much money at all.

Honestly, the only version of complaining I like to do is when I can express aloud what I don’t like. Once I’ve figured out what it is that’s bugging me, I can try to fix it. But this whole sample sale monster is just something I don’t know how to sort through and tame. If there’s any way to make better, faster choices for the sample selection would probably make it all go a whole lot faster and smoother.

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7 comments

  1. J C Sprowls says:

    Zoe,

    I haven’t ever shopped or sold at a sample sale. And, I’ve been on the fence about whether it can be a successful waste recovery model. I’m still not convinced it is.

    I have old Tailor & Cutter magazines from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. The ads in them are a real stitch to read! In any event, there are many ads of remanufacturing firms buying up cloth scraps (pennis on the pound) to make into sundry items, like: batting, pillow stuffing, mattress ticking, even wool crepe!

    I think that the most efficient waste model involves several avenues of disposal. For example:
    a percentage of samples can be donated to charity, which reduces the maker’s tax liability. But, there’s a ceiling to how much.
    another *small* percentage might go to trunk show to introduce the line to other regions.
    But, the largest percentage, however, should probably be ripped down to go to remanufacturers as it is ecologically (and, economically sound).

    Has anyone in the community heard of remanufacturers on the North American continent? How should I go about tracking them down?

  2. carissa says:

    Yeah, I remember someone posting on the forum. Her website address is http://www.jennysherman.com

    I think this is what you mean by remanufaturer? She takes used material and crochets it(?? I think? Forgive me if I’m wrong.) to make purses. She wrote on the forum at: machines/equipment, buying your first machine.

    I can see where you could use this idea for rugs, placemats, even woven loosely for curtains, table runners etc. and the value of the products could be increased depending upon the type of fabric used.

    Maybe an option would be to sell clothing whose construction was botched, but was sewn using finer fabrics to an art to wear person who weaves with mixed media. We have a local artist who does that out here. There’s also some really interesting books on that topic. The artist would get a trash bag full of fine, funky, inspiring fabric, and the designer would get a bit of a return on their fabric costs. Hey, every little bit helps!

  3. Lisa NYC says:

    Years back, I used to work for a real estate mogul who owned many “showroom” buildings. We’d always get a phone call from the designer’s staff saying they’d be having a sample sale on Friday and to stop by.

    They were never advertised to the public. Those where the sales to go to if you were a size 8 or 10. I was able to pick up several black basics and a cocktail dress or two. But once word spread, it was no longer worth going.

    It turned from a quiet shopping consultation to mass hysteria once the word got out.

    These days I wouldn’t even dream of attending a sample sale–too many people and did I mention I’m no longer a size 10? LOL.

  4. Heather says:

    We put all cutting scraps together for local preschools to use in collages, art projects, etc.

    Unsaleable merchandise gets cut apart and we use whatever we can from or just stored.

    I remember from when I used to work at a non profit in Marin County, that we would dispose unusable clothing at a fabric recycler in Richmond. I think they’ve closed, but if anyone knows any fabric recyclers in the Bay Area,I’d be interested.

    We’re trying for zero fabric waste being put in landfills from our operations. Hopefully, planning, efficiency, donations and recycling will net that goal.

  5. Yahzi Rose says:

    After I got my first sample made, I thought who the hell has sample sales??!? this thing cost me too **#@ much! lol

    Although I don’t have much yet, I’m trying to head down the ‘zero waste’ road also. When I was doing custom clothing I would never throw any cloth away (annoying my husband to no end). I would just bag it up by size and donate the scraps 3-4″ square or more to schools to use in arts & crafts and if it was unusable it would be used as stuffing. Once a friend that was opening up a martial arts gym came and got bags to fill up his punching bag.

  6. cathryn says:

    Late to reply to this post- but I was struck by the uh….cranky tone…having been to a number of these sales as a customer I am almost always struck by the not very friendly reception- and the “why are you bothering me!!!!” attitude of the peoples manning the sale. Why should the customer care at all about your profit margins? Do you care about theirs? I’m guessing…..probly not.
    Don’t get me wrong- I am not aflame, I truly understand the trouble, the sleepless nights, the endless grind of tasks, the shock at being treated like…well…you know…having been on the other side of the counter/machine and cutting table as well.
    Sample sales- to me are an excellent snapshot of the disconnect referred to in myriad ways on this blog between the customers’ needs/desires and requirements and the same of the manufacturers’- the cat and mouse game-and the semi concealed contempt, the mismatched objectives of the parties involved and the end result. For example, if the customer feels she’s gotten a great deal- THE NERVE!- the manufacturer feels ripped off,”shoulda charged more!” and vis versa.
    One other comment- once when I was a stitcher, the designer I worked for received a letter from an adoring customer- that included a picture of adoring customer garbed head to toe in our clothes. Our designer was completely freaked out because the customer looked too suburban and soccer mom-ish. No, she did not look pathetic- actually she was quite cute, and totally appropriate…the response of designer bummed me out- I saw the divide then for the first time. So sweetly naive was I.

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