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THE STYLE FILES: THE PRICES : On the Discount Trail : A trip to the hush-hush world of huge markdowns


How does a $235 Ralph Lauren anorak end up selling for $49.99 at Ross Dress for Less?

When a savvy girlfriend nabbed this candied-violet bargain in the men's department at the Westwood store, I thought I'd try to locate one of my own.

I decided to do some detective work to uncover its roots. In so doing, I hoped to uncover the secrets of discount shopping.

Most shoppers know that a portion of the merchandise in most off-price stores is from previous seasons. This was clearly the case here: The sleeve on this Lauren jacket read Polo 1992.

I stopped into my area Ross store but didn't see any of the jacket's siblings. Perhaps if I called the Ross Stores New Jersey headquarters, I could locate a similar jacket. Where does Ross get its supply of Lauren jackets? I ask a headquarters spokesperson.

Not surprisingly she demurs. Like a magician's tricks, the store's sources are never revealed.

I begin to suspect that a 007-spy-style London Fog trench would be better suited for my investigative pursuits. But, no way. I've come too far with the cotton anorak to settle for anything less.

Next I phone Ralph Lauren's Polo store in South Coast Plaza. A polite salesman answers the phone in the men's department. I ask him if he has any of the jackets with 1992 left on them. He laughs hysterically.

Then his salesman personality kicks in. "Are you looking for a lightweight jacket?" he asks. "We have several in stock right now."

I visit the store and check them out. They're all well over $100--not quite the bargain I demand.

Time to go to the top. I call Ralph Lauren (not personally, of course). A spokeswoman listens politely to my queries: Where did these particular anoraks go? What off-price stores such as Ross Dress For Less might have them? Would any of the Ralph Lauren outlet stores have them?

Someone will get back to me, she says assuringly. I'm still waiting.

Perhaps Elyse Lazar, New York-based publisher of the S&B Report--the bible for designer showroom sales and bargains--might have the skinny on journeys the jacket and other such items take from designer to discount stores.

"Designers do not like to talk about it," says Lazar, "and stores do not want to reveal their sources."

No kidding.

"But usually, a designer like Ralph will be left with, say, 10,000 jackets. A store like Ross may take all or half or 10% of them. Usually this is done no earlier than the end of a season, so as not to irritate the designer's department and specialty store accounts."

And in recent years, Lauren and other designers have opened their own outlet stores, the better to profit from leftover stock.

Aha! Maybe Lauren's outlet store in Barstow still has the jacket of my dreams. I phone the shop, where the receptionist transfers me to the men's department. The polite salesman searches in vain for the coveted anorak. "Sorry," he says.

OK, so I wasn't going to find another jacket like my friend's. Nor would I uncover the jacket's trek from Lauren's New York design studios to the crowded racks at Ross.

But perhaps it was just as well. During a recent tactile encounter with the item, some of the dye came off in my hand, rendering it far less appealing.

In the end, I realized, it didn't matter. Just as there are many fish in the sea, there are many bargains in the ocean of off-price shopping.

The candied-violet anorak was gone, but over at Ross I found an Asics nylon jacket with lavendar insets for $19.99, down from $90.

Discovery, it seems, is more than half the joy of bargain hunting.

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