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How low will they go?

Whole stores half-off, clerks sharing discounts, hagglers scoring at high-end shops -- retail is off the rails.

December 16, 2007|Emili Vesilind | Times Staff Writer

The long lines, the laps around the parking lot, the endless jostling -- holiday shopping can shake even the most patient soul out of the sanity tree.

But this season's sluggish consumer spending means retailers in Southern California are going to unheard-of lengths to make the hassle worth our while. Suddenly, super-deep storewide sales -- 50% to 70% off -- have become as common as Pinkberry outposts, encompassing every tier of retail, from Old Navy to Gucci.

Fliers are cramming our mailboxes, and we're not talking about circulars from Mervyns and Big Lots. The top tier of retail is typically the last to put things on sale or acknowledge in any way that business is less than stellar. But by early December, the sale cards started flying: 30% to 40% off designer collections at Saks Fifth Avenue; 50% off the whole lot at Prada; 10% off Barneys New York's entire inventory; 20% off everything at Trina Turk; and up to 70% off every last camisole at boutiques such as Presse and Elyse Walker.

Other high-end independent boutiques, including Lisa Kline, Jenni Kayne and Kitson, have bombarded their personal mailing lists with notices of special discount days and shopping parties -- breaking out the Champagne in an attempt to make holiday shopping more social than sadomasochistic.

And it doesn't end there. Major mall retailers such as H&M are extending their friends-and-family discounts to passing acquaintances and, well, total strangers, via e-mail. Stories of sales clerks offering their personal employee discounts, unsolicited, also abound.

But strangest of all, perhaps, are the rumors of shoppers successfully haggling over prices at higher-end stores -- sharpening their Moroccan bazaar bargaining skills at Macy's (and even Marni?).

Proof that retail has gone off the rails is everywhere.

Lizzie Crampton, a personal trainer in Santa Monica, was shopping at Banana Republic on the Third Street Promenade last week, when a salesman slipped her a friends-and-family discount postcard for 30% off her entire purchase. "He told me it was only good starting the following day," she said, "and that I should put my things on hold and come back." She gladly did.

Being approached by the sales staff is one thing. But is it possible to wheel and deal over a cashmere V-neck as though it were a Chevy?

A quick survey of area malls yielded mixed results. At the Macy's men's store at South Coast Plaza, a salesman sidled up and -- out of the blue -- asked how much we would be willing to pay for a $400 trench coat, eventually offering to take 25% off.

At the Macy's men's store at the Beverly Center, we asked a salesman if there would be a discount on a bundle of Lacoste shirts planned as gifts for the men in the family. "How many are we talking about?" asked the salesman, who ultimately agreed to "help you out" when we hit the register with seven (yes, seven) shirts.

Later we were shot down by sales staff at Louis Vuitton ("If I buy the Murakami wallet and the bag, can you do me a solid?") and Banana Republic (where the corporate-minded staffer urged opening a store credit card to get a 10% discount).

We hit South Coast Plaza after a tip that some of its luxe retailers have become receptive to light-handed haggling. At Chloe, which was full of racks marked to 50% off, we fawned over one of the few bags not on sale, then brazenly asked the saleswoman if there was "anything she could do." Her smiling response was something like, "Ummm, nooo." It was the same story at Yves St. Laurent (also having a half-off sale), Gucci and Bottega Veneta.

The mall's jewelry boutiques were another story. A saleswoman at Chopard agreed to a "small but nothing major" discount on a $10,000 diamond necklace. "When you're ready to purchase, we can talk," she said matter-of-factly.

At Cartier, holding a $20,000 gold-and-diamond men's watch, we threw out the oblique and ridiculous, "It's a little more than I wanted to spend. . . . Is there any way you can lower the price a little if I buy two?" To our great shock, she replied, "We could check into that for you, sure."

There are, of course, endless variables as to why a salesperson can or can't discount merchandise on request.

Those on commission, trying to bolster their personal sales numbers, usually have more power to prune. Store management may be able to make that call, depending on the company, but the hands of seasonal and part-time employees are almost always tied.

And it's almost too obvious to state that the salespeople -- who deal with an encyclopedia of bad behavior during the holidays -- hate hagglers.

"The hagglers get worse as you get closer to Christmas," moaned one clerk at H&M at the Beverly Center. Another, at Restoration Hardware, said the most common tactic is the bulk-buy inquiry. "People always ask if they buy two, can they get a discount," he said, adding that the answer is always no.

This season, maybe they should try Cartier.


Times staff writer Adam Tschorn contributed to this report.

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