Signs in the lobby of the California Mart note emphatically: "There are NO SAMPLES for sale in the Mart today." Labels in the showroom garments read: "Sample, Not to Be Sold." But savvy shoppers know better.
On the last Friday of every month, many of the building's 2,000 showrooms post discreet "Samples for Sale" signs in their windows. Inside these normally sedate rooms, usually reserved for deal making between retailers and manufacturers, bargain hunters rummage through boxes and racks of clothing.
With a single-minded zeal, customers peel off their own garments and try on samples in full view of anyone who takes time to look. So what if there are no fitting rooms? For deals like these--about half the retail price--modesty be damned.
Wendy Nichols, a sales representative for a giftware company, drives to the Mart every other month or so from her Long Beach home to browse the showrooms for better women's apparel. "I'm a chronic shopper," she said, adding that the deals at the Mart are "definitely good."
By about 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 30, scores of shoppers were scurrying through the Mart, checking guidebooks to locate the showrooms of their favorite labels and crowding onto escalators.
Niloo Nouri, a 26-year-old shopper from Los Angeles, was on her second visit to the Mart. She said she intends to "keep coming back--if I don't get into a fight with my husband."
In the showroom of Alexis and Stanley Blatt, who represent several contemporary clothing lines, crowds were lured by a makeshift sign reading: "New Season, Loaded With Great New Samples, Must Sell, Great Prices."
"They (the Mart management) try to discourage (sample sales), but it's a necessary evil," Stanley Blatt shrugged. "There's no outlet for salesmen to get rid of samples except selling to the public. A lot of my money is tied up in samples."
Since Blatt buys samples from the manufacturers, it is he who is selling the garments, not the apparel makers themselves. (The "Not to Be Sold" labels are sewn in by the manufacturers before the garments leave the factory.) And although the Mart officially does not endorse such sales--"the public is not welcome at the California Mart," general partner Sidney Morse said--the practice does go on.
Not everyone is happy about it. "They are disgraceful," said one executive of a buying office near the Mart. "No other apparel market operates like that. It becomes a retail outlet."
And she might have a point. Consider the doctor's wife from Redlands whose friends started shopping the Mart sample sales several years ago while their husbands were still in school. "When your husbands are in medical school, you're so poor," she said. "Some would resell (garments) to friends at a slightly higher price to make extra money."